Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Technology to Support Learning

This week's reading by Shrum and Levin helped me to outline some of the technology tools that are available to encourage student learning. More specifically to my interest area, they outline some tools/skills that would be extremely helpful out of the classroom. These tools provide 21st century skills by extending access to content and information that usually happens in-person. But before discussing the tools, the authors discuss the skill of authenticating internet sources. Not all of the information out there is valid. Similar to teaching students the validity of primary documentation and credible hard copy sources, conversations also need to reflect the online sources which they are using more than anything. It is now the job of educators to stress the characteristics of authentic online sites and the tools they can rely on to grasp (and test) classroom concepts.

The first tool that authors mention that have out of class application are interactive websites. The schools for engineering traditionally involve lecture style learning and lack of hands on application until late in the undergraduate experience. These sites provide the opportunity for students to experience the concepts they are learning without the needs for labs or pricey technology. One example I have used in my experience is PhET interactive simulations developed by the University of Colorado at Boulder:

Students in my classes have used the simulations offered by PhET to test designs, validate solved programs, or just test out concepts before the upcoming class. Regardless of the intended use, this additional representation has been useful in establishing deeper understanding and the application of course materials.

The next technology tool provides an additional option to tutors and office hours for concept understanding. Online Mentors and experts are accessible on a variety of sites to provide support to concepts that are not clearly articulated on the sites. For example, the Rutgers library provides access to librarians for research support via instant messenger:

Rutgers has developed this function to cater to the research needs of students and even provides email access to manage inquiries when a live person is not available. Tools like this support students by providing access to experts/educators that are skilled at articulating topics using technology.

I constantly seek the tools that gain the interest of students in the engineering. The problem I see often is students having difficulty visualizing what the jobs and careers look like for the people in industry. Shrum and Levin discuss Virtual Site Tours, and I think this would be an excellent addition to engineering disciplines to introduce students to what engineering positions and structures look like. These tours often take place in person, but some offer online tours to reach a broader audience. Even if companies are unable to participate, using videos of capstone and seniors design projects will come in handy to give these concepts real life application.

All these tools would be great if students entered the university experienced with technology tools. But the reality is that a digital divide exist even on the collegiate level. The students that have an easier time are those that had access to technology tools and exposure to engineering prior to being in independent environments. Many of the students I work with currently come from low income, first generation backgrounds in hopes of being trailblazers in their families by pursuing the engineering field. Without the appropriate technology access and training they will not have the 21st century skills necessary to be successful after graduation. This is where student support structures for engineering programs will be most effective in the 21st century…


  1. Hi Mike,

    I think you have some great ideas. In fact, I share some of the same sentiments specifically relating to PhET and the virtual tours. I also saw these tools as extremely useful to STEM curricula. While PhET is available to the public, videos may not be. If you do use virtual tools in the future, I would love to collaborate with you and share the videos. I anticipate that this endeavor is not a quick and easy one. It will be one step at a time, snails pace perhaps. But, as long as the pace is steady, the goal will be achieved. Happy trails......

  2. Hi Mike!

    Thank you for sharing the PhET Simulations. There are about two dozen new sims on the very first page I opened that I can use within the next few weeks! I teach middle school students who I know will be more than happy to explore those sims at home in addition to using them at school.

    I definitely agree with your comments about the validity of primary documentation and teaching students to be discriminating. Tuesday afternoon I listened to student presentations which included expert sources to support their conclusions. It is very clear that I have a lot more work to do in guiding my students how to be more selective in the sources they choose.