Space to Teach: The Teaching Professor Technology Conference
In 2013, the English Learning Support department at UNG was awarded a $100,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. As part of the “Adaptive Learning Market Acceleration Program” (ALMAP) grant, several learning support English professors – myself, Ashley Armour, Kelly Dahlin, Dr. Shannon Gilstrap, and Dr. Matthew Horton – took on the task of incorporating adaptive technologies into our courses. We decided to use the McGraw-Hill LearnSmart program, which uses an algorithm to constantly update each student’s learning challenges and successes in order to offer a so-called “personal learning plan.” For three semesters, we incorporated the technology into our pedagogy and into our assessments, and, for three semesters, we gathered data on the students. Were they successful in completing the “learning plan”? How did their work with the technology affect their success in the course? How did using the technology impact our teaching?
The answer, right now, is that the verdict is still out, at least empirically speaking. We do see some correlation between course completion rates and learning plan completion, but we’ll need to look a bit closer to determine whether it’s causative or simply correlative, as the plans were also a percentage of the course grade. We did decide, nearly unanimously, that the program gave us room; we had more space in our classroom lessons to address more holistic issues, such as paragraphing, organization, and critical thinking. We spent less time lecturing about grammar, and we spent more time teaching, and practicing, revision and editing strategies. In other words: we could workshop student papers. Students could collaborate in peer review sessions, feeling more confident about their foundational knowledge.
It was this pedagogical freedom that we focused on in our poster presentation at the Teachning Professor Technology Conference in New Orleans. Our eposter, “Space to Teach: Adaptive Technology in the Developmental English Classroom” (watch it here) drew a bit of attention, as we fancied it up with a Google Slides presentation. The most interesting conversation was with a faculty member from a large university. She was not only skeptical of the technology; she simply refused to believe that we had time to “workshop” and to “work with students” in a writing classroom. We insisted that, as long as the instructor scaffolds the lesson appropriately, with specific tasks and expectations, peer reviewing and student-teaching interaction can work quite well in our courses. Despite our clear experience with this format, the faculty member remained doubtful, and she walked away with a firm shake of her head and a dismissive comment, “I don’t believe that’s possible, what you’re saying. There’s no way to work with individual students to that degree.”
For us, her doubt was suprising, since our student-centered pedagogy has served us so well for so long. We weren’t, however, bothered overmuch by her disregard of our approach. In fact, the exchange reaffirmed the unique beauty of what we’ve been able to accomplish with a focus on teaching and learning at UNG. The adaptive technology, for us, simply allows us more space to do what we want: teach every student how to communicate effectively and confidently, in any context.