‘Digital tools give students more control over their learning’

OP-ED: Concordia professor Nancy Acemian extols the benefits of new technology
September 1, 2016
By Nancy Acemian


This op-ed was originally published in the Montreal Gazette on August 28.

We’ve made the shift to digital for shopping, banking, reading and watching TV shows or movies. Most of our communication is digital, on smartphones or tablets. It’s hardly surprising that today’s digital generation is embracing technology in the university environment as well.

For critics who worry that digital tools lead to shortcuts and enable lazier students, I would argue the opposite happens. The students are given greater responsibility and ownership of the material and empowered to reach for success through an array of means.

Students today want to be actively involved in their learning. They want to see and try new concepts, not just hear about them from the “sage on the stage” at the front of the lecture hall. This doesn’t mean professors are being swept aside by digital technology.

On the contrary, faculty members are simply embracing digital tools to introduce new pedagogical activities that enhance our students’ learning experience. Since joining Concordia’s teaching team, my own role as an educator has evolved from that of a transmitter of knowledge to that of a facilitator of learning.

Innovations run from technology-enhanced learning, where the instructor uses digital tools to promote learning in and out of the classroom, to fully online classes where learning and assessments are entirely online. Between these two extremes is blended learning, where some recorded lectures and activities carried out online or in the community are replacing traditional classroom lectures.

Even during traditional face-to-face class time, “digital ice breakers” can increase direct in-class communication between students  — even in large groups — where previously the same few students answer questions while others watch passively. Educators can use a classroom response system to keep students engaged with the course material. This system — also known as clickers — is a polling device that provides students and teachers immediate feedback on students’ learning.

A teacher poses a question during class, and students have the opportunity to answer by keying in their reply. This tool allows students to monitor their understanding and allows professors to adjust their teaching immediately based on the feedback from the clickers.

“Lecture capture” is another example of a digital technology that provides students with a more self-directed system of learning they can adapt to their schedule and their needs. Teachers can now capture (record) their slides, annotations and audio explanations using a laptop while they teach and make these recordings available to students after class via a course webpage.

Students can then re-visit a lecture in full or in part, a useful feature for reviewing content they did not understand or for students whose mother tongue is not English. In a blended course, teachers can use these recordings to flip a class; students view the lecture online before coming to class, and use class time to apply their new knowledge solving problems individually or in groups with the teacher facilitating the process.

Digital technology has also widened access to learning beyond even traditional correspondence courses. Students are able to listen to lectures on their cellphone, tablet or computer whenever, wherever and as often as they want, submit assignments digitally (instead of mailing them) and even participate in group discussions asynchronously via a wiki (a website allowing many people to collaborate in the creation of a document) or synchronously with the use of video conferencing (such as Skype), something that didn’t used to be feasible in correspondence courses.

These types of digitally enhanced learning experiences have made a university education accessible to ever-greater numbers of people but also resulted in a more engaging student experience. When students are given more control over their learning, more opportunities to shape their experience through the use of technology, they actually go deeper into the subject and retain the material longer.

In embracing digital learning, we are facilitating a more active form of learning that ensures greater academic success.

Nancy Acemian is a professor in the Faculty of Engineering and Computer Science at Concordia University and is the Provost’s Fellow for Blended and Digital Learning.

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