Speaker discusses intersection of technology and education innovation

With laptops now as commonplace as traditional pen and paper, it’s important to consider the larger role technology plays in the classroom.

On Monday, Georgia Tech Educational Research and Innovation Director Wendy Newstetter came to JMU to discuss the benefits and pitfalls of online learning. Approximately 25 people, most within the engineering department, were in attendance at the event, which took place in the Health and Human Services building.

“I characterize Wendy in three I’s: Innovative, Inspirational and I can’t get enough of her,” Elise Barrella, an assistant professor of engineering said when introducing her.

Newstetter began her presentation with a video, “The Education Bubble.” It compared the increasing cost of higher education to the housing crisis of 2008.

“Right now we are looking at the growing interest in technology as a panacea to rising tuition costs, but the big question for me is how to increase learning outcomes. I’d like to see technology be utilized in the classroom,” Newstetter said.

She then proceeded to look at the Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs), a solution that has been promoted by the Gates Foundation. The foundation’s goal is to increase post-secondary educational opportunities for previously marginalized groups, through “educational social justice,” which Newstetter also discussed.

Georgia Tech was given grant money from the foundation to develop these MOOCs, which they used to create three general education courses. One of these classes, an introduction to psychology course, saw over 27,000 enrollees. Of them, 1,600 would take the final exam and only 1,120 would pass it — and those were the most favorable results. Further research suggests that more students used these MOOCs as a resource, taking the information and applying it elsewhere. In practice, only about 5 percent of these online learners retain the information and pass the class. While innovative, Newstetter noted the program hasn’t shown the results they’d hoped for.

What then, is the solution?

Newstetter believes it’s important to strike a balance between technology and learning.

“It can be difficult to speculate about the future of technology-enabled learning. It has profoundly impacted how we spend our days, how we interact with each other, and how we learn,” she said.

For JMU, there is pressure to incorporate MOOCs into the curriculum, during the February Faculty Senate meeting President Alger spoke about how he doesn’t want to replace the traditional classroom.

“We know that it’s not the cheapest model of education,” he said. “We know technology is important and we’ll continue to explore and use technology where it’s important … but we know that the human touch is still important.”

Newstetter went on to propose something she calls “personalized education,” a model that has been similarly applied in medicine, in which multiple learning styles are present within one classroom to facilitate learning. Students would take learning-style tests, then given a “genome” on how they would learn best according to their personality. Newstetter argued that this would be extremely beneficial when assigning group projects, because it would help determine who can best work together.

While junior health sciences major Nicole Ervin likes Newstetter’s idea, the JMU student questions the schematics.

“I think that sounds great, but with such an array of people, how do you attend to so many different students?” Ervin asked.

Newstetter answered by describing an environment in which students are treated as a symphony and specific students are engaged at certain times during the class. She described it as being very messy, and requiring a significant amount of classroom management, but believed it could be done.

“I worry about people becoming prisoners of their educational profiles, to the point where it cannot be kept private. That could lead to problems such as a lack of hiring. Employers might discriminate because they haven’t worked well with these types in the past,” Bob Kolvoord, dean of the College of Integrated Science and Engineering, said.

Contact Samantha Ellis at ellissl@dukes.jmu.edu.

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