Best Practices

The following set of "best practices" were adapted from Connie Varnhagen's keynote address at Fall Perspectives 2001. All deal with the use of technology in the classroom. When 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.

Blackboard/Overhead

Functions, Benefits

  • Disseminate information
  • Pace lecture
  • Immediately updateable
  • Collaboration

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.

Prepared Overheads

Functions, Benefits

  •     Disseminate information
  • Some collaboration
  • Immediately updateable
  • Prepared lectures

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 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 point.

Presentation Software

Functions, Benefits

  • Disseminate information
  • Media integration
  • Maintains attention
  • Prepared lectures

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 point) 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 student 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). A good example of PowerPoint design can be seen at Jim Staples' Biology 022 site (http://instruct.uwo.ca/biology/022/pt4/lectures). Jim provides both the PowerPoint slides and a printable file. Note: PowerPoint slides on the web are best viewed with Internet Explorer rather than Netscape.

Video, Audio Stream

Functions, Benefits

  • Disseminate information
  • Support & extend instruction
  • Maintains attention

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.

Online Testing

Functions, Benefits

  • Practice
  • Immediate feedback
  • Access at a distance
  • Access at any time

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 (http://www.uwo.ca/cgi-bin/geniq/pathol/MedsIV/breast.iq) 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 the student to the appropriate material. The online test is designed for formative feedback-a method to help the student 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.

Simulations & Demonstrations

Functions, Benefits

  • Active learning experience
  • Engaging
  • Elaboration of concepts

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!

Computer Mediated Conferencing

Functions, Benefits

  • Collaboration
  • Encourages critical thinking
  • Writing skills

Online Course

Functions, Benefits

  • Access any time, any place
  • Can include active components

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://web.psych.ualberta.ca/~varn/discusF00/messages/23/59.html
http://eon.law.harvard.edu/property