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Published January 27, 2013 | Electronic Data-processing

The Geek Who Lets Them Seek

I'm a techno-junkie and ran my own consulting company for twenty years before starting teaching. Around 2000, I had a chance to start working with the Department of National Defence installing a learning management system able to handle up to 65-70 thousand concurrent students. As a part-time teacher in Heritage College at that time, I began using technology in my own teaching methodology. Moodle was just being introduced as the Learning Management System for the college, and I enjoyed using it in my teaching. As a matter of fact, I loved teaching so much, I decided to switch careers.

Technology became part of who I was as a teacher. When I was teaching systems design, where there is no one correct answer, I required my students to blog so they could compare and contrast each other's design and analysis techniques. I also started doing things like putting wikis on my course pages, so that students could contribute to a glossary of terms.

Keeping Students Questioning and Involved

By then, the school had clickers which I used in the classroom, introducing the whole idea of immediate response. From a pedagogical point of view, by providing instantaneous feedback to students and teachers alike, there was so much you could do without formally marking. You generate feedback very quickly and students give feedback to each other. Learning becomes all-encompassing, so the mark becomes irrelevant. When students see a question on the clicker, right in front of them, and get it correct, they understand that concept. The onus is on me as a teacher to make sure that the questions on the board are the correct ones to ask for what I am trying to teach.

Our responsibility as teachers is changing to the point where we have to show students how to find information.

Little things like bringing technology into the classroom make a huge difference to students, because they're more engaged. Coming out of high school where cellphones are generally forbidden, I'll ask students to find answers to questions on information we have not covered in class. At the beginning of the term, maybe one or two students will reach into his or her pocket and pull out a cellphone or open up a laptop and give the answer to the class. By semester's end, students start to almost race each other to try and get the answer. Generally, I find that they are not distracted by Facebook, because they're engaged and trying to find that answer in Google or in Wikipedia or wherever they have to go for the answer. This means they're looking things up; they're starting to distinguish between, an unacceptable response, and what works in respect to the material. They have to do an evaluation of the information they find quickly, because they're trying to find an answer for the class. Is this a good source? Am I understanding the concept?

Socrative is a smart response system fostering student engagement

The same thing with clickers! In the fall, the clickers were not available for my class. Instead, I discovered Socrative which is available both as a website and an app for both Android and iPhones. I asked my students to download the app or go to the website on their laptops. For those few who did not have a device, I used the tablets and phones that the department had purchased. I ask my clicker questions through Socrative, getting immediate feedback on my screen as they enter their responses. Sometimes I would ask a question simply to know if they're paying attention; they were very engaged trying to anticipate the next question.

Embracing Students at Their Reality

Technology has become ubiquitous. Students access it through their phones, their tablets and their screens wherever and whenever they want. So, why do they have to memorize and regurgitate answers? Most of my exams or tests are online with open access to the Internet, yet as a technology teacher I struggle with how to word questions and assignments such that I'm getting back the response that I want, given the multiples of ways to come up with a solution.

For example, in HTML, if I am testing on tables, there are multiple solutions to a problem. You could use a <div> code, you could properly format the information using CSS, or you could use HTML tables and special table formatting tags for table headers, etc. If I explain the way I expect them to do it, then I worry I'm giving them too much of the answer. If what I want to evaluate isn't there because students have a different approach to it which they found on the web, is their approach wrong? Maybe, it's inefficient, but it works in this situation. If I'm trying to teach a way which works in every situation, their solution may not work. But for the next situation, they'll research again, and they'll find something different. Is that a problem?

Our responsibility as teachers is changing to the point where we have to show students how to find information. The fact that they actually know the information and can regurgitate it is irrelevant in our society, given that information is ubiquitous.

I don't want to tell students everything. I only want to be the guide on the side because in the computer science industry, if I can't know everything, it's okay, as long as I can be the geek who lets them seek out their own answers.

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