Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Take a byte of a trend

Times Higher Education Supplement, 13 April 2007
Don't get stuck in the Stone Age, excite and stimulate a new generation of students with some high-tech lecturing tools. Just log on and download a wealth of new ideas, says Harriet Swain

For years, your black and white slide show was the hit of the first-year lecture scene. Now you sense it doesn't have the same impact. What are students looking for these days?
Why not ask them? If you want to keep up to date with the latest technologies and teaching methods, talking to people is a good place to start, says Gaynor Backhouse, project manager for technology and standards at the Joint Information Systems Committee. "Talk to students about what they are using and why, and talk to your kids," she says. "There are a lot of assumptions made about these technologies and how rife or otherwise they might be."
Henry Keil, who was The Times Higher E-tutor of the Year last year, says keeping abreast of matters relating to educational research is no different from attempting the same in your own speciality subject area. He recommends attending relevant conferences, using the local learning and teaching support group and talking to colleagues, "in particular younger people, since they will be determining its success".
Toby Bainton, secretary of the Society of College, National and University Libraries, says that if your institution has a subject librarian it is also worth touching base with them from time to time about resources you might not have heard about.
Alan Cann, senior lecturer in biology, who has run a regular blog for the past year as a developmental platform, recommends keeping in touch with the relevant subject centre of the Higher Education Academy. The discussion lists, web journals, newsletters and other services these provide can be invaluable, he says. "There is no reason not to be aware of what your subject centre is doing."
Next, Cann suggests keeping tabs on the centres for excellence in teaching and learning, set up by the Higher Education Funding Council for England a couple of years ago. These focus either on different subject areas or on particular generic skills, such as creativity or work-based learning, and are at various stages of development. Cann suggests checking what centres are available and what the ones that interest you are up to.
Then there is the blogosphere. "If you are very selective and develop skills to filter information, there is a lot of useful pedagogical information being discussed out there," Cann says. He says most of it is coming from the US at the moment but predicts this will change. Cann's personal favourites are Will Richardson's blog, which discusses use of new technologies in classrooms around the world, and he also recommends looking at EdTechie, a blog by Martin Weller, professor in educational technology at the Open University. But he also suggests searching sites such as Technorati or Google Blog Search for topics of particular interest to you. From there, you can build a personal network, bookmarking blogs that you find useful.
The way to stop yourself spending entire days trawling through these blogs for new stuff is to sign up for a blog aggregator, such as or Google Reader. This checks your chosen news sites and blogs for new content and e-mails you the headlines. It also allows you to share interesting items with colleagues. "Almost by definition, much of what you read won't be of high value," Cann says. "But every once in a while you will find a nugget." And Lawrie Phipps, programme manager, users and innovation, at the Joint Information Systems Committee, says it is possible to have updated information from your favourite blogs or websites sent to your homepage to avoid clogging up your e-mail inbox.
Melissa Highton, senior staff development officer at Leeds University, says you should check out social networking sites such as MySpace, or Elgg, which is more specifically directed at educators, to learn from other people about further sources of information that could interest you, as well as to build up networks.
Phipps is taking this kind of online information-sharing further by setting up an online community of practice where about 150 people from some 50 institutions can learn from each other about developments in new technology through discussion forums, blogs and wikis (websites that allow visitors to add and edit content, and offer access to expertise).
"What is really exciting at the moment is the sheer number and volume of JISC projects going on," Phipps says. Keeping an eye on these is therefore essential for anyone wanting to keep up with the latest in podcasting or using computer games in teaching.
Backhouse, who runs TechWatch, a JISC service that looks at new technologies and how they impact on education, recommends doing this by reading the regular TechWatch reports. She also suggests looking at the American-based online Educause Review, which produces reports about developments in new technology that may be useful in higher education.
Phipps says that if you really want to keep up with technology it will help to immerse yourself in it. He has a blog at work on the JISC site, and another at home using Blogger. He also displays his photos using Flickr and posts videos on Google Video.
But Backhouse says you shouldn't get too worried about keeping up with the latest technology trends. "I'm not bothered if someone looks down on me because I don't have a ccount," she says. I have a very utilitarian approach to technologies. If they aren't useful, don't use them."

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