Reflections Newsletter

Instructional Technology: Functions and Best Practices, Website Support for Teaching Large Classes, Turnitin.com: A New Plagiarism Checking Tool at Western

Instructional Technology: Functions and Best Practices
by Mike Atkinson, Faculty Associate, Teaching Support Centre, UWO

Dr. Connie Varnhagen from the Department of Psychology at the University of Alberta was the keynote speaker at Fall Perspectives this year. Connie noted that while we think of instructional technology as something "new" (e.g., online courses, multimedia presentations, etc.) the concept has been a part of our classroom lives ever since the invention of the chalkboard. The various types of presentation technologies have their own unique functions and benefits and examples of best practices are readily available (we'll examine some of these shortly). It is worth noting that a consideration of the pedagogy behind teaching does pay off. For example, well-developed and well-presented lectures (including appropriate use of the board, overheads, or presentation software) are associated with better note taking. This in turn can lead to better student comprehension. The entire presentation can be found on the web (http://www.uwo.ca/its/itrc/), but let's take a few minutes to look at some of the best practices here at Western and at other institutions.

Type of Technology

Functions, Benefits

Using the blackboard or overhead projector to actually write down your points as you say them is a very "organic" way to disseminate information. The lecture grows in real time and students can actually see the instructor's thought process modeled in the classroom. Actually writing your notes in class has the added advantage of pacing-you cannot lecture faster than you can write. What's the best way to use the blackboard? Connie suggests that you print the material rather than writing it-this increases legibility. You should print large enough for the material to be readable, but not so large that a single point covers the entire surface. Use colour to emphasize points (rather than underlining). The blackboard does allow for a high degree of collaboration between the instructor and the students, but remember to talk to the students, not to the blackboard or overhead. One method to help accomplish this is to print the material first and then elaborate. If you talk and write at the same time, you are likely to make mistakes and lose the attention of part of the class.

Type of Technology

Functions, Benefits

Similar benefits may be derived from overheads that are prepared or printed before class. A prepared overhead typically is much more legible than a hand-written one and allows you to insert figures, diagrams, even photos. They can be updated as you talk and provide you with a high quality set of lecture notes. On the down side, the degree of collaboration is reduced and it is harder to improvise and break away from the serial nature of the lecture. Connie recommends that you minimize the amount of information on each overhead (as a rule of thumb, 6 - 8 lines) and provide a header for each page. Leave room for printing and use colour for emphasis. It is best to use a sans serif or block letter format (such as Ariel), and the font size should be a minimum of 20 points.

Type of Technology

Functions, Benefits

The use of presentation software (such as PowerPoint) allows the instructor to integrate a variety of media resources and present a lecture with a smooth, polished, professional look. Such tools are pretty well "required" in the larger classrooms where students must be able to see and hear properly. Some rules of thumb: Minimize the amount of information on the screen. Use a header for each page and a large (40 points) sans serif font. Use colour and formatting consistently throughout the presentation. Even though there are 24 million colours available, stick to 3 or 4. Use a high-contrast background-foreground pairing. Connie recommends dark text on a light background. The opposite (light text on a dark background) will work as well if you are rear-projecting the image. There is considerable disagreement over whether you should post the slides to your web site. On the one hand, this provides students with the notes and complex diagrams so that they can pay full attention in class. On the other hand, this may discourage active learning (actually writing the material) and attendance may drop since the notes are readily available. If you do post, post a degraded version of the notes (main titles, complex diagrams only). Note: PowerPoint slides on the web are best viewed with Internet Explorer rather than Netscape.

Type of Technology

Functions, Benefits

It is possible to stream video and audio from your website and use it in much the same manner as you would in class. You can produce the video yourself, but perhaps the best method is to link to really good material already on the web. Clips should be short and to the point. You should also maximize the projection window. Tiny thumbnail clips can be annoying. If you use a clip, it is important to provide a "wrap-around"-a description of the clip, why it's being used, how it fits into the course, etc. Laura Gribble's Psychology 140 site demonstrates a very nice example of the use of video (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/odyssey/clips/). The segment was produced by NOVA and shows a time lapse morphing of embryos. Note that the NOVA site allows for several alternative ways to access the video.

Type of Technology

Functions, Benefits

If you ask students what feature they find most valuable on a course website, the consistent response is practice tests. Students like to test their knowledge of a chapter or module, both after they have read the chapter and when they are preparing for an exam. Many of the prepared tests that accompany textbooks are simply not very good and instructors would like to generate their own questions. Fortunately there is an easy to use program available on campus called IQ (contact the Instructional Technology Resource Centre at http://www.uwo.ca/its/itrc/). Try it for yourself! Take Bertha Garcia's breast pathology exam from the Primary Care pathology course for medical students. Note: When designing an online test, the items should be representative of the course content and level of difficulty that you expect on a real exam. The feedback should be immediate and, ideally, direct students to the appropriate material. The online test is designed for formative feedback-a method to help students get a better idea of where they stand in the course. While it is possible to give an actual exam for grades on the web, the issue of authentication must be addressed.

Type of Technology

Functions, Benefits

More complex technology lies behind online demonstrations or simulations. There are many examples of this on the web, but not all are pedagogically meaningful. To be really useful, an online simulation should be relevant to the course and actually explain some concept. The instructor should provide a discussion of the simulation either in class or along with the module. Be careful using all those bells and whistles-not only can they detract from the learning experience if not used appropriately, but they do not always work. You should check the simulation frequently, and definitely before using it in a "live" classroom. A good simulation can be seen at the Negative Reinforcement University (http://www.mcli.dist.maricopa.edu/proj/nru/nru_web.html). This module (designed by a team at Scottsdale Community College) offers an emersion experience for the psychological concept of negative reinforcement. Be forewarned-you will have to register at the Student Information Centre in order to complete the course and receive your diploma. The site requires a shockwave plug-in for Netscape users, and you may have to alter your security settings. Have fun!

Type of Technology

Functions, Benefits


Type of Technology

Functions, Benefits

Finally, one can mount an entire course or tutorial on the web. Contrary to popular belief, an online course (or component) is not maintenance-free. Both require constant monitoring and updating in order to run properly. For example, a computer mediated conference requires the instructor to create groups of students, seed the discussion(s), monitor the exchange of information, provide a grade for the students and feedback about how they used this tool. An online course will require both instructional support (understanding the content) and technical support (understanding how to use the technology).

For a good example of a mediated conference, see Connie Varnhagen's introductory psychology site at the University of Alberta, and the Harvard Law School provides a good online course dealing with intellectual property in cyberspace.

http://eon.law.harvard.edu/property

In considering the use of any technology for course instruction, one should consider the goals of the course and how the selected technology helps to achieve those goals. There is really no benefit derived in using technology simply because you can. If the instructional goals can be attained best by reading and discussing text, then that is the method you should pursue. Other considerations include access to the technology (e.g., does everyone have a computer?), support (e.g., who will design and maintain the website?), and the cost of using technology in comparison to a more traditional mode of delivery. Finally, don't forget to build in an evaluation component to assess how well the enhanced technology helped achieve those course objectives. You may discover that the blackboard wasn't such a bad idea after all.

Website Support for Teaching Large Classes
by Mike Atkinson, Faculty Associate, Teaching Support Centre,UWO

The Teaching Support Centre is pleased to announce a new web-based resource for the teaching of large classes. Prepared by Allan Gedalof and Mike Atkinson, the site contains portions of the STLHE Green Guide on Teaching Large Classes (by Allan Gedalof), numerous tips, links, featured sites and the opportunity to send questions you might have directly to Mike or Allan. This new resource will be available as of December 1, 2001 and can be found on the Teaching Support Centre's website. Here's a sampling of some of the features.

The Guide

This section contains excerpts and updates from Allan Gedalof's Green Guide on Teaching Large Classes. After reading these excerpts, you may want to check out the entire Guide. It (and the two companion Guides on Active Learning and Teaching the Art of Inquiry) is available in the Teaching Support Centre office.

The following excerpt is from the section on preparing to teach large classes.

Preparing for Large Classes

Let's assume that you've set your course objectives, planned your course prescription, worked out how you're going to evaluate your students (does it really have to be only multiple-choice?) and done your lecture schedule. Now you're going to start preparing individual lectures.

Check out the classroom in which you will be teaching. Is it adequate to your needs? Does it have the technology you need? Obviously, you can't prepare your lecture using that slick new presentation program if you're working in a room that doesn't have data-projection capacity. You may very well find that you're being asked to do a job without being given the tools to do it, and that you have to become a champion of adequately equipped rooms in which to teach. Exactly what the room will need depends on a number of factors, including the discipline you teach and the size of the class.

The well-equipped classroom. In every large classroom, the audiovisual equipment should be mounted so that the instructor can control it from a console with a lockable door at the front of the room, either directly or via remote controls as in the case of slide projectors.

The lighting in the room should also be controllable from the front of the room, and the lighting mix should include dimmable incandescent lights. Unless they have been recently installed or upgraded, standard fluorescent lights flicker horribly when they are dimmed, and students protest vigorously. A lighting set-up that allows independent control of areas of the class (for instance, allowing you to keep the front half in relative darkness so that projected images show up clearly while leaving enough light on in the back half of the room so that students can still take notes) is preferable.
Remote controls for the equipment (always desirable), the computer keyboard where available, the laser pointer, and the wireless microphones (with fresh spare batteries and spare clips) should be stored in a lockable drawer in the console. Inevitably, someone will walk off with a remote control for a piece of equipment. One solution is to issue programmed universal remotes to individual instructors.

Presentation Tip of the Week

This feature will offer a variety of presentation suggestions ranging from PowerPoint tips to advice on how to wear and use a microphone. If you have any specific questions about presentations, please feel free to e-mail Mike or Allan.

Fonts for PowerPoint Presentations. When using a presentation package such as PowerPoint in the classroom make sure that everyone can actually read what you have on the screen. Use a large (40 points) Sans Serif font (such as Arial). For most applications, a dark text colour on a light background is your best choice. Use colour for emphasis, but limit your palette to 3 or 4 choices at most. Finally, avoid using a drop shadow. Shadows look fine on a monitor, but tend to blur the image when projected.

Ask an Expert

Over the years, we have been asked a host of questions about the teaching of large classes. We hope that you will ask many more. This section presents some of the questions and answers from the past in addition to answers for new questions that have been sent in by e-mail.

My students tend to get very restless toward the end of class and consequently, the noise level rises. What can I do to prevent this?

Controlling noise levels is always a challenge in large classes. As a preventative measure, enter into a "contract" with your students at the beginning of the course. You should put this in your course outline and discuss it in an early class. For example, I promise my students that I will always start class on time and never go beyond a certain time (in my case, 1:15 p.m. and 2:45 p.m.) This gives students ample time to arrive for my class and to get to their next one. In exchange, I ask them to arrive on time and to not leave early. In this way, there is a minimum of confusion.

A second strategy is to set an "exit window" for your class. Do not end at precisely the same time every day, but choose a window (e.g., 5 minutes) during which you could end the lecture. This prevents complete anticipation of the end of class. Avoid ending with phrases such as "finally", or "one more point". This is a sure-fire sign that class is over.

Other features on the site include a PowerPoint Primer, some examples of best practices on the web and in the classroom, and links to other instructional development sites from around the world. We hope that you will find the site useful and that you will visit us often. Please send along any comments and/or suggestions to atkinson@uwo.ca or agedalof@uwo.ca.

Turnitin.com: A New Plagiarism Checking Tool at Western
by Debra Dawson, Director, Teaching Support Centre, UWO

In May 2001, Western adopted a new Internet plagiarism checking tool called Turnitin.com. This tool screens essays and other written works to determine the congruence between student's work and material available on the Internet. As the developers of Turnitin.com believe the recirculation of essays is one of the primary sources of plagiarism, their database also includes all papers submitted to them. Therefore, students would be unable to hand in the same paper to two different faculty members. Faculty may use Turnitin.com to check individual papers suspected of academic dishonesty or ask the whole class to submit their papers to Turnitin.com as a deterrent to plagiarism.

Typically, students not faculty members submit the papers and then the faculty member receives an originality report from Turnitin.com stating the degree of similarity between the paper and specific Internet sources. The faculty member makes the final determination of whether or not plagiarism has occurred. Currently this fall at Western 25 faculty members are using Turnitin.com in 41 different classes. If you would like to use this software, please go to: http://turnitin.uwo.ca This site contains information on how faculty members can register their classes to use this tool and how students can upload their essays to Turnitin.com.


Teaching Support Centre
Room 122, The D.B. Weldon Library
Western University
London, Ontario N6A 3K7
(519) 661-2111, ext. 84622
tsc@uwo.ca