Don't Let Uncertainty about Technology Dissuade You
Uncertainty often magnifies the perceived difficulty of using a new technology—especially for the less "tech-savvy" among us. A study on course management software, also known as Learning Management Systems (LMS), concludes: "One of the barriers limiting LMS use at universities is the fear of technology. Professors in the arts and humanities often feel they do not possess the ability nor have the time to learn to build Web-based course material."1
Yet the study found that professors who did become involved with management systems thought that their course were more complete and structured (90%) as a result, and that both the content was enriched (80%) and that student interaction increased (80%). Additionally they felt their teaching styles were livelier. On a practical note, three-quarters said that they had gained more knowledge about the media (even if they already had previous experience) and over half agreed that their skill in website construction improved. So the benefits of technology can indeed be harnessed.
TAF Case Study
One of the success stories of TA investment in technology is Mark Elliot from the School of Policy, Planning, and Development at USC. He was one of the TAFs who worked on this Teaching with Technology module. Though hardly an expert, he appreciated the value of technology in the classroom and wanted to use the web to bring his school-related
research to the community. But he wasn't quite sure how to do it. There are many off-the-shelf blogging tools and web design programs, but which to use?
During one review session for this module he learned about Content Management Systems (CMS). Unlike static websites that use composed pages of HTML, CMS separates the website presentation from its underlying content, which is stored as a database. In CMS, webpages are composed on the fly as a reader clicks a web link. This allows for a dynamic approach to adding content — just the kind of "post-and-forget" approach that blogs take — but with the additional flexibility in design offered by static websites. So, for the reader, there is always a consistent presentation of standard information (like a static site) which is complemented by the regular addition of new postings.
There are many ways of managing content. Wikis, blogs, and dedicated CMS-based websites each have their own strengths and weaknesses. After gaining an understanding of the alternatives, Mark did some research and approached fellow TAF Greg Placencia, whom he considered an expert. Greg suggested he try one of the more accessible, open-source CMS packages. Mark and Greg only met once for about 1.5 hours to hammer out some of the difficulties Mark had understanding how his CMS worked.
If we outline Mark's process we see the lessons of this module:
Mark recognized that a website could be his portal to the public for his research interests and teaching. And CMS software, once configured, automated the "grunt work" of updating pages, leaving him to focus on content.
Mark sought advice from a trusted expert to help him match his needs to the right software. This happened to be a CMS, but one of the key issues was finding one with a relatively easy learning curve that would help Mark achieve his objectives.
This was one of the crucial points Mark understood. He did a lot of initial legwork, but considered the eventual payoff well worth the investment. Additionally he understood one of the key aspects of all technology tools: independent of whatever tool is used, it is the planning and content that are key.
Mark was very savvy about discussing what CMS could and could not do. He was aware that content management and presentation is always a work in progress; it requires time to learn and to update content regularly. Still, despite Mark's relatively low level of expertise in this area he did a great job as you can see: