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Putting Pedagogy Before Technology

Rick Ells

It takes a while to develop a good pedagogy appropriate for a new technology.

When I first started using the Web to teach, I outlined the topics, one page to a topic, and then lectured while I projected the pages one by one on a screen. The students were impressed. Soon, though, I sensed that they were getting bored.

So I decorated the pages with graphics and pictures and told the students they could access the class notes between classes. Better, but the evaluations were still not as good as I wanted.

When I began teaching in a classroom where each student had their own computer, I redesigned the class Web site. I wanted the students to follow along, topic by topic, as I lectured. I added more text to the pages and put in links to supplemental information. As I lectured, I became aware that students were wandering off on the Web while I did my talking-head routine up front.

Course evaluations indicated the students wanted more time in class to work with the material, so the next step was to cut back on my talking and give the students a series of in-class exercises. Each topic was introduced with a succinct explanation and a few carefully chosen examples, then the students worked individually on sample problems. The result was much better involvement and higher ratings, but consistently a small number of students were struggling, usually because of simple misunderstandings of the content.

To address the needs of these individuals, I reworked the sample problems and encouraged students to work in teams of two or three as they solved them. By working together, the students could often sort out their own misunderstandings.

I now find myself working on Javascript and Dynamic HTML to design pages that demonstrate dynamic relationships or perform standard calculations. I also am playing with different page and site configurations seeking designs that are more easily understood and used by students.

So what is the point of this chronology? I think many instructors have gone through a similar evolution in methods as they explore and apply instructional technologies (IT) to education. Too often, these experiences are not shared. With everyone preoccupied with struggling up technology learning curves, juggling class workloads, and coping with rivers of email, who has time to discuss pedagogy?

Still, we should be gathering our experiences on the practicalities of applying IT to the business of education. With the rapid pace of technological change, only a lively dialog on the topic will keep us from being buried by heaps of re-invented wheels. Plus, we have available quality methodologies and tools for assessing questions that arise from such discussions.

So far, providing an IT infrastructure has consisted of making available reliable tools such as networks, email, listservs, and Web servers. But in the years to come, IT tools will be increasingly integrated among themselves and with the administrative systems of the university. As these changes occur, the tools and systems will need to be carefully assessed not just for their usability, but for their pedagogability. The existence of a body of knowledge on how to use IT to deliver teaching and support learning in ways that affect real change in students' knowledge and skills will be fundamental to the ongoing success of this process.

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