Instructional Technology in the Classroom at the University of Oregon

Gregory D. Bothun
Department of Physics
University of Oregon

Introduction

The use of instructional technology as a classroom tool for improving upon course curriculum and instruction is an unproven tool. At present there is lots of potential, talk, workshops and ideas but few actual implementations. There is also an unfortunate tendency for potential practicioneers to shy away from implementation because they are unclear if there will be an effective increase in either the quality of the instruction and/or student learning. Such apprehensions are natural and can only be assuaged by objective inspection of a few test cases. A current discipline-specific listing of Web based courses offered by various universities can be found at the The World Lecture Hall . This is an important resource for anyone considering developing Web pages as the principle lecture format. One of the main lessons to be learned is that you don't have to reinvent the wheel but instead can use and build upon what others have developed. In this case, a truly collaborative curriculum can be developed by assorted experts in the field.

I consider my experience on this campus over the last two years as a good test case. In the process I am able to isolate both positive and negative aspects of the adoption of this new classroom/learning model. My own opinion, contrary to repeated perception by others, is entirely neutral - I do not yet know if this form of instructional technology is effective. I do know, however, that it is not worse that the traditional way of classroom presentation of course material (i.e. chalk or acetate). I also strongly believe in the paradigm shift that this technology potentially offers. We certainly have a means for involving students more directly in the course material.

There are two distinct components of instructional technology which are not being adequately seperated in recent discussions that I have heard. In my report below I will keep them separate. These two issues are:

These issues are seperate because each requires its own infrastructure and each has its own relative merit with respect to the overall design of the course.

Historical Perspective

My main teaching committment at the University of Oregon involves large introductory astronomy classes. As my other job as a professional astronomer, I have acquired two decades of professional quality data. I think its quite important, and helps to make the class more real, if one can integrate their own professional research into the course curriculum. Prior to the use of network in the classroom, the only way I could do this was to bring in a 35-mm camera to my office, display my data/images on the screen of my Sun Workstation, take a picture and hope that a decent slide could be made. I would then show the slide in class. So my desire to get network and computer projection into the classroom stemmed from the need to have a more direct interface to my own data. To accomplish this. three components are required:

Getting network to the classroom is relatively easy these days (call Dale at 6-1745). Good presentation software now exists (but didn't when I started this - see below) and for most purposes the Web browser itself is an excellent means of presenting material ( example lecture here ). The third requirement was rather difficult to obtain (and the lack of such devices on campus currently is further testimony to this) but through perserverance money from various sources was secured to purchase a high quality LCD panel .

So in the Fall of 1993 I taught my first course using a computer in the classroom. This course was Physics 161 and there were about 80 students. There was no World Wide Web, http, or netscape in those days. I did all my lectures in Tex (an arcane scientific word-processing language) and the output was color postscript files which were projected to class via the tool Ghostview ( example here ). The postscript files were also placed on my anonymous ftp server . In principle the students could fetch those files and print them out on a PostScript printer. Needless to say, this didn't work very well. As an IN class presentation tool, there was not much flexibility. Images/data were shown using the tool XV and hence two programs had to be run simultaneously. Furthermore, the lack of student access/understanding of PostScript printers meant that most were not able to fetch the lecture notes and besides, there was nothing they could do about fetching any images which were shown.

In the Winter I moved to a different combination: the use of XV and XFIG (XFIG is to UNIX what Paintbrush is to Windows or MacPaint to Mac). As a lecture tool this provided much more flexibility as one could integrate text and simple diagrams together. However, there was no way for the students to access this formatted material outside of class, and the conversion of XFIG documents to PostScript is painful and wouldn't have resulted in significant student access for the reasons cited above. By spring term, I was just starting to use the Web as means for organizing and delivering lecture material but the bulk of spring term was spent in XFIG and XV.

By the start of the 1994 academic year I was confident in the Web browser's ability to be an excellent means of organizing a lecture. The use of hypertext significantly improves functionality and allows incorporation of a diverse range of source material into one interface. With the student galdstone accounts becoming available at the same time, it became clear that this was a method that one could use to build a lecture and have it archived for later student access. I was able to convince a couple of other colleagues in the Physics Department to adopt a similar strategy and by now there are several Physics Web courses . There are now faculty in other disciplines that are apparently interested in this approach, with some actual implementation . As we look forward to the coming of another Academic year, it seems important at this point to evaluate this overall approach.

Positive Points

Negative Points

Reality Check

Recommendations

Based upon my two year experience, coupled with extensive presentation and discussion with other faculty members and departments, I have developed the following (mostly obvious) recommendations which should be implemented if we are to move forward in Instructional Technology.

Summary Remark

This last year was an experiment in network access for students and network delivery of course material. What happened? Approximately 10,000 students got accounts on Gladstone (thus necessitating the purchase of Gladstone's 2 and 3). There are approximately 500 individual student pages on Gladstone/Darkwing. While many of these are junk, it does show the growth. The next year is critical - will we see a commensurate growth in Web-based course curriculum and instruction? In my own case, I plan to continue to move as hard and fast as I can on the technology front and hope to be employing video server technology in the classroom next fall. For me, Instructional Technology has made teaching and course development fun again.