SOE News

From the dean

School infusing technology into education

Photo of Bill McDiarmid

Bill McDiarmid


Recently, higher education has come under pressures akin to those that our public schools colleagues have endured for several decades. Recent publications have questioned the “value-added” of a college education that is becoming increasingly expensive. Concurrently, “massive open online courses” – or MOOCs – are growing like Topsy with the participation of higher education heavyweights such as Stanford, Berkeley, M.I.T., and Harvard.

Carolina is paying close attention to these developments and is redoubling efforts to improve our students’ learning experiences. This is true not just in the College of Arts and Sciences but also in the professional schools as well. The School of Pharmacy, for instance, began using “flipped” classroom models well before that term entered the higher education vernacular. Pharmacy students in the required introductory courses access video lectures on a website before coming to class, preserving class time for problem-solving and knowledge application. This approach recognizes that the most valuable aspects of the residential higher education experience are the face-to-face opportunities to work through knotty questions and problems with engaged colleagues and expert faculty.

In the School of Education, we like to think we also have been ahead of the curve. Recognizing the importance of modeling the pedagogy we advocate, faculty in our preparation programs have employed active, problem-solving learning approaches for many years, engaging our students in collaborative projects, research, simulations, and field-based activities using ever-evolving technology. Although budget cuts have challenged such approaches by forcing us to significantly increase class size in many courses, our commitment to active learning approaches undergirds faculty development of new approaches, particularly the use of emerging digital technologies. A number of faculty, often in collaboration with graduate students, have adopted approaches to course design and instruction that take advantage of what emerging digital technologies offer.

For instance, George Noblit and graduate students Ashley Boyd and Eldrin Deas are teaching a class of ­­­153 students in the “Social Justice in Education” course required of all first-semester education majors. Students work in groups to develop electronic games that teach social justice theories. Individual students also create games to teach content that they will be responsible for when they become teachers. In addition to the game technology, students develop and participate in online forums called “wikis” to support collaboration and use the Skype communication tool to discuss with experts to inform their game development.

Subject matter methods faculty and graduate students in our elementary education program are working as a single unit, planning and teaching together across subject areas. Leading this collaboration are Janice Anderson (science), Julie Justice (literacy), and Gemma Mojica (math). A centerpiece of this work is “Tarheel Teachers  NING.”  The Ning is a private social network that, as the course syllabus states, “serves as a community space for learning across two years and six courses. Students blog, discuss and post learning artifacts throughout their program.”

This approach is designed to bridge the course “silos” that have characterized – and Balkanized – educator preparation programs from their inception. All the instructors are privy to what the students are doing across all their courses, creating an experience for the students that is more coordinated and cumulative.

The Ning also constitutes a repository of data on student learning that faculty and graduate students are mining for their scholarship. Four papers and six conference articles have been produced from the data that also include videos, animations, and webpages. As a result of analyzing these data, faculty have a greater understanding of what and how students are learning in their courses.

Students in this science-math-literacy block also use a range of technologies that includes, among others: CAST book-builder to create a digital book; videos of their classrooms; an interactive white board; student-created podcasts; multimedia trailers on children’s literature; Kinect Xbox to use in teaching force and motion in science; Prezi online presentation software; “backchannel” tools that students can use during class to ask questions, interact with classmates, or make comments without  interrupting the flow of the lesson; and animation tools to demonstrate and assess science content knowledge.

In short, students leave the elementary program having had hands-on experiences using a range of digital and other technologies to support their practice and their students’ learning.

In the middle-grades language arts methods course, Leigh Hall also takes advantage of the affordances of a class wiki where she posts all information of the course. By the end of the course, all students will have created their own wiki page where they post their unit and lesson plans that can be accessed by both Leigh and the student’s classmates.

Leigh also requires her students to be members of Jim Burke's English Companion Ning, a professional community for middle and high school English teachers. Leigh’s students are required to blog weekly about their experiences in English education. In response, a number of practicing teachers are posting comments on the students’ blog entries – a form of virtual mentorship as well as an introduction to the professional community.

Supporting the faculty in this work is the School’s Director of Instructional Technology, Brian Fodrey. Brian brings to the work his experiences at Iowa State University’s Center for Technology in Teaching and Learning, one of the leaders in the development and use of educational technology in the country.

This is merely a sample of the ways in which School of Education faculty, graduate students, and staff are using technology to support our students’ learning. Just as important is the research they are conducting so that we can continually improve our programs.

Faculty engagement in the use of technology in teacher preparation extends beyond Peabody Hall. Last year, Janice Anderson, Cheryl Bolick, and Leigh Hall traveled to the headquarters of Microsoft Corp. in Redmond, Wash., to work with faculty from several other universities to develop modules for teacher education faculty around the world to use in preparing their students to capitalize on available digital technology in their classrooms. The “Teacher Education Initiative” is headed by Jim Ptasynski, senior director of World Wide Higher Education at Microsoft and a Carolina graduate. In May, teacher educators from North Carolina and the Southeast convened in Peabody Hall to review and critique the modules. The next step will be for the development team to revise the modules based on this feedback and begin working with teacher educators in the U.S. and around world to integrate them into the preparation curriculum.

Two new faculty members with outstanding accomplishments in educational technology research and development will augment our existing strength. Sharon Derry has been a pioneer in learning sciences research nationally and has done groundbreaking research in the use of video technology to improve learning in teacher preparation programs and school classrooms. Finishing up her work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison this semester, Sharon will be joining us in the spring semester as the first Thomas James Distinguished Professor in Experiential Learning. She will be an invaluable asset not just to the School but also to the University and the state as educators make new forays into using digital technology to improve students’ learning experiences.

Kihyun “Kelly” Ryoo has done innovative work using digital representations to teach fundamental scientific concepts. She has studied how learners – particularly English language learners – respond to various digital representations of concepts, such as photosynthesis. After completing her Ph.D. at Stanford University, Kelly undertook a three-year post-doc working with some of the world’s most accomplished learning science scholars at the University of California-Berkeley.

As you can see, developing and using digital technology and studying its impact on learning has become a major strength of the School at the very moment when it is most needed in the University and the state. We are fortunate to have faculty, graduate students, and staff who have the creativity, commitment, and knowledge needed to make sure that future educators leave us with the technological tools they need to support them and their students.

Bill McDiarmid is dean of the School of Education at UNC-Chapel Hill.