Improving the Lecture?

Tools that improve upon the traditional lecture are abundant in today’s edtech landscape. These tools can be categorized as follows: (1) Improving real time lectures (2) Flipping the class to allow lectures to be seen anywhere at anytime.  Both types of types of tools make lectures more responsive and could be important starting points on a teacher’s journey towards a student-centered classroom, but they also amplify the pedagogical weaknesses of a lecture.  

Improving Real Time Lectures

Nearpod and Pear Deck allow teachers to embed assessments and interactive elements into their slides. For example, both tools allow for multiple choice, free response, and polling. These features provide important formative data. In a traditional lecture a teacher is likely to pose a question and hear from 1-2 students, but with the interactive features in both tools, teachers are able to involve every student. Also, instead of teachers having to walk around the class to look at the notes or answers students have written on a handout, teachers can more efficiently gather data about comprehension about a specific topic in order to decide to re-teach or move on.  These features help generate immediately actionable data and opportunities for engagement with students.

Flipping the Class

Tools like EdPuzzle, Zaption, Vialogues, and Play Post It allow teachers to easily post and share videos with students. These sites also allow teachers to embed multiple choice and short answer questions while some like, Vialogues allow for enhanced interaction by facilitating time-stamped discussions while watching a video.   Similar to Nearpod and Pear Deck, embedding questions into the lecture provides valuable data on which concepts students mastered and which need further review. However, since these videos are generally watched at home it frees up class time for more meaningful learning during class such as authentic projects, discussions, debates, simulations, etc.


Tools that make lectures more interactive are valuable because they provide actionable data and can help teachers begin to think about pedagogy with students at the center. However, they also amplify some of the shortcomings of a traditional lecture. First, these tools are still teacher directed because teachers are the ones that find the resources and create the presentation; therefore, the material reflects one point of view and most of the cognitive load falls on the teacher. Before the advent of flipped learning, the audience for a lecture might be 30 students in a room but now it could be thousands or even millions.  Second, engagement still occurs at a relatively superficial level. While responding to multiple choice or short answer questions does ask students to reflect on their learning, it is a poor substitute for engaging dialogue with peers on compelling questions. While a technology enhanced lecture might provide important background on a new topic, it has some of the same shortcomings of a traditional lecture; therefore these tools should be seen as entry points to student centered learning not the final destination of a tech-improved classroom. 

The Future of Teaching

As we try to predict what learning and schools will look like in the future, we must consider how we can better prepare teachers for facilitating this type of education.  Although there are many important purposes of schooling, two of the most important are preparing citizens who can contribute to society and developing workers who can contribute to the economy.  

A civic education will continue to be important especially as digital media provides new means of educating and persuading the general public. However, making a prognosis about possible careers in the 21st century economy is difficult at best because even of the most important jobs in the world today did not exist 10-20 years ago.  In such uncertain times, how can we design an education system that prepares students for the 21st century?  

As education technology advances, as pointed out by A Roadmap for Educational Technology (Woolf, 2010) and discussed by Keri Valentine in More on the Future of Teaching with Technology by Keri Valentine, there will be significant changes in the 21st century classroom. Some of the most noteworthy changes include:

  • Future systems will make informed recommendations; if a student shows weakness in a skill, it will suggest remediating tools; if she shows an interest in X, and many people who like X also find Y interesting, then it will suggest Y (p. 19)  
  • Systems will ultimately facilitate communities of learning. (p. 20)
  • Systems will also be self-improving, i.e., policies about when and how to provide advice will change as the system works with large numbers of students and learns which students profit from which advice (p. 20)  
  • Learning communities will be distributed across space, time, and contexts, and will not be defined by dichotomies (p. 24)
  • Rich interfaces will support lifelong learning and ubiquitous experiences (p. 27 – 28)

Technology will clearly play a powerful role in student learning. In fact some predict that eventually technology will become so  advanced, it will essentially replace teachers.  Two areas of learning computers can  effectively replaces teachers are

(1) Delivering factual knowledge (e.g. who/where/when of the Civil War)

(2) Explaining neatly organized systems & processes (e.g. how to replace my cabin air filter, parts of a cell, photosynthesis, etc). 

In other areas, technology can help facilitate learning (e.g. an online discussion board) but may require a teacher to organize the learning. As technology continues to change education it is transforming the economy at an even more rapid pace.   More work that used to be done by humans is done by machines and computers.

Therefore, in order for schools to continue to have relevance, they must create learning experiences for students that cannot be replicated by a computer. If a skill or set of knowledge can be taught via a computer, then what a student is learning is preparing him or her for a job that is likely to be replaced by a computer.  

To develop skills and dispositions for the 21st century, a teacher will need to take on more unique roles such as:

  • Creating unique, authentic problems that excite students and blend community needs, learning standards and student interests.

  • Challenging students’ way of thinking and helping them develop a greater capacity for empathy and perspective taking.

  • Providing encouragement and cultivating intrinsic motivation when facing challenges in learning

Here is a more tempered view of the potential of technology to revolutionize education and why teachers are still important:

There are many exciting advancements occurring in education technology. Tim Bush, education marketing manager at Microsoft, says the cloud and video gaming will play key roles in changing how students learn. Matt Britland, a technology coordinator and consultant, also says the cloud has great potential for changing education along with socially connected learning. I believe these tools will be helpful.

However, the most important change that can and must occur due to the growing power of technology has nothing to do with computers. The culture in schools must change. Teacher training and professional development must change.

 A new culture or learning and teaching must be formed in which teachers’ primary role is to create authentic & relevant challenges and help cultivate resiliency, new ways of thinking and intrinsic motivation in students which inspires the lifelong learning necessary to succeed in the 21st century.

[NOTE: This post was inspired by a discussion in Prof. Burbules’ course on Education and Technological Reform. The coursework is part of the New Learning program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign]

Microsoft’s Classroom Utopia


First, let me start with the most promising aspects of Microsoft’s vision for technology’s role in improving how people live and learn in the future.

Technology will allow people to:  

  • easily and more immersively connect with experts around the world.
  • pursue more meaningful projects for authentic audiences
  • spend more time with the  people around them instead of completing routine tasks.
  • easily collaborate on projects with more natural human interaction.
  • learn seamlessly from the world around them and access information easily.


Some of these benefits of technology reflect the shifts that  Prof. Nick Burbules argues will occur when learning becomes more ubiquitous. These shifts include:

  1. A blurring of formal (institutionally guided) learning vs informal learning (e.g. people using heads up displays on glasses to learn about different species of plants while snorkeling on vacation)
  2. An increase in socially connected learning whether it is through social media, comments in a news article (or a video chat with a scuba diver.)
  3. More problem based learning instead of curriculum based to encourage learning where its application can be seen in authentic contexts. (e.g. students researching ways to preserve marine vegetation that is currently at risk.)
  4. Learning that is more “just in time” instead of “learn it now, use it later” (see #1 above)
  5. Student-oriented instead of teacher driven (e.g. students 3-D printing a model to test their solution to a real world problem)

However, my biggest concern with a classroom with the types of technology shown in Microsoft’s utopia is the fragmentation of experiences and relationships.

As technology allows people to connect with those around the world and access information that is relevant and interesting to them, what remains of the classroom community? When projects are more individualized and there is less of a need for everyone to be reading or watching the same thing at the same time, what remains of the relationships between students and the shared experiences that occurred in a traditional classroom?

Some of the most meaningful classroom experiences I have had—as a student and a teacher—is passionate, emotional, even raw discussions face to face.  There is an authenticity and serendipity to conversations people have when they have to confront the reactions of their peers that cannot easily be replicated digitally. These interactions help cultivate empathy and new perspectives which are less likely to emerge in a classroom empowered yet fragmented by technology. 

In a ubiquitous learning environment, Prof. Nick Burbules assures teachers that their role is not only important but enhanced for it includes:

“….helping learners organize and integrate their learning in meaningful ways; in helping learners to sequence learning opportunities; in helping to inspire, motivate, and model learning as an active endeavor; and in providing supplementary assistance and support for learners who are struggling.”

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges we educators face in the 21st century classroom is to continue to cultivate a classroom community grounded in strong student relationships and shared experiences while they use technology which allows them to seamlessly connect with the world beyond it.  

[NOTE: This post was inspired by a discussion in Prof. Burbules’ course on Education and Technological Reform. The coursework is part of the New Learning program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign]

Form should fit Function

Too often, especially technology enthusiasts like me, are excited to try the latest new feature our favorite website or app offers. Whether it is interactive multi-player review games on Quizlet & Kahoot or “advanced differentiated” digital reading programs, we’re always looking for ways to engage our students and improve their learning.  Technology can play a powerful role in the classroom. However, we have to be more deliberate about how , when and why we use it.

I believe form should fit function.

Once we have considered and decided what the purpose of a particular learning activity is, we can decide how to structure it in order to hopefully help students achieve that outcome. Furthermore, the environment you’re teaching in and students backgrounds will play a role in shaping the design of the learning activity. For example, if your favorite LMS or discussion board gave students the option to rate each other’s posts or get points for quantity of posts, here are some aspects to consider: 

  • If the goal of an activity is to produce the largest number and the broadest variety of views on a specific topic, it might be helpful to publicize the number of times each student has posted. What gets measured, gets done.  
  • If your purpose is not to generate a broad range of views but to provoke the deepest level of thought, then it would be helpful to churn people’s ideas until the clearest, most thoughtful insights emerge. In this case a peer or instructor led rating system would be helpful.
  • If the students did not choose to be in the class (see factors of motivation in Dan Pink’s book Drive) and, therefore, they lack intrinsic motivation (and the teacher has done little to draw out an innate curiosity) then using extrinsic motivators like public praise (or punishment) as demonstrated by a public leaderboard for discussion posts would be appropriate. However, we have to be aware that while such a solution might generate more students to post, or even make longer posts (if one earns “points” that way), the quality of writing will continue to lag. Further, students may become discouraged that despite their best efforts they are still at the bottom of the pack. Extrinsic motivators will generally lead to short-term solutions or unintended consequences when true learning is the goal.


A rating system could introduce the best views or simply ones that many people agreed with.

This would lead us to the trap that Eli Pariser (Ted Talk: Beware of Online “Filter Bubbles”) and Cass Sunstein (Boston Review: The Daily We) want us to be cautious of. Although a human, peer generated ranking system could be better than the algorithmic ones used by Google or Facebook (although their human curators seemed to have landed them in hot water recently) we could still remain in what Pariser calls the “filter bubble” if there isn’t a robust criteria for how and why certain content is favored over others.

Similarly, Sunstein worries that digital spaces have led to a narrowing of political views instead of a broader open frontier we generally hold as the promise of the Internet. I see this too often in Twitter chats (or even chats in grad classes). Since most participants hold similar views (or they wouldn’t have participated in the chat or taken the course) or are worried about social ostracization if they present a contrary opinion, most online chats become echo chambers. This leads to participants simply holding stronger “versions of the same view with which they began” as Sunstein pointed out. Since self-selected online spaces can limit social influences and argument pools “there is legitimate reason for concern.”


Therefore, we must consider: 

  • What should be the balance between personalization and serendipitous experiences?
  • To what extent should we use algorithms to differentiate materials for students based on interest and ability versus deliberately introducing students to topics they might not be interested in or even explicitly disagree with?


Technology holds potential but requires carefully examination

In an online discussion there are opportunities for more dissenting views.  Many people post contrary  (and vitriolic) views  in the comments sections of news articles, I would say there is still significant range of opinions online. However, the comments on an article are often skewed towards the political leanings of the publication (e.g. New York Times vs The Wall Street Journal) because readers often chose to read (and comment on) newspapers whose coverage matches their own biases.  Further, online rating algorithms could make it less likely that you see views you disagree with, especially if the criteria by which posts are ranked are not made clear.

Having an algorithm based on other users feedback would be helpful for sifting through a forum (or product reviews) that numbered in the hundreds or thousands. Perhaps this will be the case in some MOOCs. However, courses could also be designed to have smaller cohorts of students interacting (reducing the number of point of views presented) but making an algorithm less necessary and escaping the filter bubble.

The more advanced technology becomes, the more aware we have to be of how it is shaping our views and, ironically, the more effort we must make to overcome the blind spots technology creates.

It’s interesting how we are becoming further dependent on technology to organize the explosion of information it helped create. Perhaps that’s the trade-off we have to live with: If we want access to the broadest range of views, more than we might be able to sort ourselves, we have to rely on an algorithm. Otherwise, we have to limit our access to information to a quantity to a quantity we can sift ourselves which potentially limits the diversity of views and could reinforce our preconceived notions unless we deliberately seek out points of view that differ from our own.

[NOTE: This post was inspired by a discussion in Prof. Burbules’ course on Education and Technological Reform. The coursework is part of the New Learning program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign]