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Faculty Knows Best: What Tech is Needed in the Classroom?

The use of ed tech in the classroom can bring new perspectives and developments to both students and teachers, provided they’re able to access it.
The use of ed tech in the classroom can bring new perspectives and developments to both students and teachers, provided they’re able to access it.

Ed tech means different things to different people and different institutions. For some it’s the physical hardware that allows students to do their coursework, and for others it’s the software that enables them to enroll in the first place. In this context, it’s a hybrid of both: the software found inside the classroom that aids in both learning and teaching.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What can schools do to better use technology in the classroom?

Nicole Barbaro (NB): Two big ones come to mind for me here. First is talking directly and consistently to the faculty using ed tech. In my view, faculty know best what they need to teach their students, especially on the technology front. They know what their students need to be able to access tech and use it to learn most effectively. What that translates to is making sure faculty have a seat at the decision-making table. Many colleges and universities have administrator-level conversations and individuals who purchase ed tech without faculty input on what they need and will use in the classroom. This is the main takeaway from much of our research at the College Innovation Network (CIN): We need to make sure we’re talking to faculty, so they can get products they will use to advance their teaching.

Second is that we need better communication about ed tech. One of the big findings from our recent survey is that faculty have a very clear consensus of what they want from their technology: accessibility, integration, impact and support for themselves and their students. But we also know from our survey that faculty are very pressed for time, especially depending on what type of institution they’re at. They could be doing research, service and teaching. If they’re part-time, they probably have another full-time career on top of teaching. Faculty don’t really have the time or necessarily the training to dig through jargon-laden research papers describing technology’s impact.

It comes down to the administration and staff levels procuring and finding ed tech to make sure they’re communicating clearly and effectively what ed tech options meet faculty standards and needs. And the ed tech companies working with institutions to research their ed tech products need to clearly communicate their features and how they can be used. We need clear communication on all fronts, so faculty can review the products, how they’ll impact their students, what support they have for their students and make sure it’s meeting their standards to teach effectively in the classroom.

Evo: In this context, when we talk about ed tech, what really are we talking about?

NB: When we’re talking about faculty using ed tech, it can be hardware or software. It’s anything they’re interacting with that facilitates their teaching and their students’ learning. This can be the learning management system (LMS), but it also includes plugins and software integrated within the LMS and products such as study tools that students use. We also need updated hardware technology for faculty, so they can use some of the new innovative ed tech products. We often think of ed tech as only software nowadays, but we can’t forget that without functioning hardware, it’s hard to use the software. So, ed tech is really anything that students and teachers both interact with that facilitates teaching and learning practices.

Evo: More than 80% of the faculty featured in the report said they’re comfortable using new tech in the classroom. What can we do for the other 20%?

NB: Drawing on my own experience as a professor and the data we’ve collected from faculty through this survey, we can do a few things. First, create intentional peer learning communities among faculty. Our data in the report show that faculty are learning about teaching practices and ed tech from their faculty peers. They’re not necessarily listening to administrators about what technology they should be using in their classroom. They want to hear from others using ed tech in their own classrooms. But to do that, we need to make sure faculty have the time to participate in these peer learning opportunities.

Our data in the report show that faculty are learning about teaching practices and ed tech from their faculty peers.

-Nicole barbaro

We also need to make sure faculty have the time to focus on creating the intentional space for that peer learning culture. Another clear take away from our survey is that faculty just need more time, resources and training. We see in our data that a substantial proportion of faculty don’t feel like they have enough time to actually evaluate the ed tech they might use. They either don’t have the skills necessary to read through these white papers, as I mentioned before, or they’re just not getting the right support and training from their institutions. Without reallocating some of the time faculty spend working on duties peripheral to teaching and intentionally making space for professional development, it’s hard to see how we’re going to make progress with that 20%. We need to make sure we’re defining the faculty role as centralized on teaching and ensure they have the professional development and training opportunities they need.

Evo: What are some of the best or more recent examples of new technologies in classrooms?

NB: At the College Innovation Network (CIN), we have a few great examples of some of the ed tech products we’ve been working with, both in the classroom and in the broader campus community. One is a product called Harmonize, which is a multimedia discussion forum that integrates with the LMS platform faculty use in class. Discussion forums are foundational pieces of asynchronous learning. But they can also be a little bland because they’re mostly text-based. Harmonize is an engaging multimedia discussion forum that allows students to react, integrate links or media, and everything shows up in one area rather than opening up new tabs when they start clicking on links. In our research on this tool’s impact, we asked faculty how they’re using it, and this type of product has allowed them to make seamless integrations between asynchronous learning and in-class learning, which is becoming quite common now with hybrid courses. It’s really been interesting to talk to faculty to see the creative ways in which they’re using these products.

We’ve also been working with technology geared toward getting students connected with peers on campus. We’ve been working with another company called Nearpeer, which is a campus-specific social networking app for students. When we surveyed students on the two campuses where we’ve tested this product, we found that students really crave social connections with other students on campus. We’re finding that the simple act of sharing your interests and finding other students who share the same ones led to 41% of users making new real-life friends. Students are connecting on apps and getting to know each other online, and that can translate into real-world connections and experiences.

Evo: How does adopting these new technologies really boost accessibility and equity among students?

NB: I see this in a few ways. For one, higher education is now dominated by this flexible multimodal learning approach for students, and all of this requires technology. This tech-enabled era of higher ed we’re now in allows more diverse populations of students to fully engage with their college experiences. So, a few examples: Adult students are more likely to enroll in fully online programs to suit their schedules, but they still want some social experiences with their peers. They want to know that they’re not in this isolated individual learning experience, although they need the flexibility that comes with asynchronous online learning. Some virtual community ed tech like InScribe—another company CIN works with—helps build rich, dynamic online communities for students that our research shows has been great for boosting students’ overall sense of belonging.

And then the Harmonize product that I mentioned before is another nice example of how ed tech can boost accessibility and equity for students because it’s fully mobile-friendly. In my experience working in lower-income student population areas, students don’t always have access to a laptop and must complete their coursework on a smartphone. So, we need to make sure we’re using technology that can allow them to fully engage with their courses and their learning experience to ultimately have better and more equitable outcomes.

Evo: Where do you think classroom technology is going to be in the next five to ten years?

NB: The million-dollar question! Two things come to mind. The first is that I hope all classrooms are equipped with the foundational technology needed to use all these innovative software tech products coming out. I’ve seen firsthand, from working in lower-income community colleges versus high-intensity research universities, how the types of classrooms you’re in completely change your teaching approach and practice. I’m really hoping that smart classrooms are widely accessible across all different types of institutions, so we have more equitable learning experiences in the classroom with tech.

And second, I think we’re going to see the concept of the classroom greatly expand in new ways that we probably aren’t even thinking of just yet. We’ve seen this a lot since the start of the pandemic—that learning can happen almost anywhere and everywhere, as long as you have some sort of Wi-Fi or Internet connection. I’m really curious to see how that unfolds at scale, as we’ve been seeing over the last couple years. Though, I always want to point out that tech alone isn’t going to drive learning innovation—our educators will. How they’re using technology, how they’re innovating in the classroom and using that technology with students and how they’re changing their teaching practice to get the most out of ed tech. Tech isn’t the only solution. We need to make sure we’re supporting our educators as well.

Evo: Is there anything else that you would like to add regarding ed tech?

NB: I’m just curious to see how ed tech is going to change. We’ve seen such a big shift in the ubiquity of tech-enabled learning in the last couple years. Ed tech isn’t new—it’s been around for over a century now, but ubiquitous integration with learning is new. And we’ve seen a huge explosion of that in the last two years. I’m just curious to see how it continues to unfold. The next ten years are going to be very interesting with how ed tech impacts learning.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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