Do you remember making flash cards to study vocabulary words? And how many times were you assigned to a group project over the years? Teaching and learning approaches such as these have been used for ages, but new collaboration tools are giving them an extreme makeover. Flash cards are digitized and have matured into shareable learning activities. Group projects are completed over the Internet using desktop sharing applications, wikis and other collaboration tools.
During our development of StudyMate Class, we gave a lot of thought to why certain Web 2.0 and collaboration technologies work well in education, while others don’t. Three factors seem to determine their success: they must be developed for education, they must be well-structured, and they require instructor facilitation.
Developed for Education
Most educators agree that education shouldn’t adapt to technology, but rather, technology should be adapted for education. And while we know this intellectually, one can’t help but wonder why so much energy goes into trying to shoe-horn education into platforms like Facebook and Second Life, with limited success.
When the concept for StudyMate Class first emerged at Respondus, it wasn’t the result of sitting around a table trying to figure out a way to add Web 2.0 functionality to our StudyMate Author product. Rather, it was a response to instructors saying “Wouldn’t it be great if students could create their own StudyMate flash cards and games, instead of having to rely on the instructor to do it?” And, “Wouldn’t it be cool if students could then share their flash cards and games with other students – even allow classmates to make corrections or additions?”
That was the impetus for StudyMate Class. Educators provided us the inspiration, while Web 2.0 offered a roadmap to accomplish it.
Collaboration Tools Need Structure
Wikis and blogs are some of the most recognized applications from Web 2.0. And while they’ve had some success in education, they tend to be used by limited numbers of disciplines and faculty at educational institutions. What hinders their success is that they lack structure – they both start with a blank page. It’s the digital equivalent of providing teachers and students with paper and pens and saying, “OK, go at it.”
StudyMate Class is based on the familiar study group concept and provides a clear structure for producing study materials. This structure doesn’t just help students get more from the application, it also gives instructors a starting point for how to use it effectively.
There are three templates in StudyMate Class for entering new items. The first template is used to enter basic facts, such as those gleaned from lectures or textbooks:
The second template is for entering glossary terms or anything that has a “term-definition” structure:
The third template is for creating traditional multiple choice questions:
The guidance doesn’t end there. For each template there is a corresponding set of learning activities and games. While the range of activities allows students to learn the materials using a variety of approaches (ie. learning styles), the learning process itself is relatively structured. For example, six activities are linked to content created with StudyMate’s “Term/Definition” template (four are shown below):
Pick A Letter
The template approach is both simple and flexible. But most importantly, it provides an intuitive structure for organizing study materials.
Instructor Facilitation Required
A common misconception about Web 2.0 and collaboration tools is that students will just start using them if they are made available. Nothing could be further from reality. An application might be a time-saver, intuitive, and even fun, but students won’t try it unless the instructor shows them how and why they should. (The “why” might simply be that it will contribute to their grade.)
Even with a relatively structured application like StudyMate Class, it’s important that instructors fully understand the capabilities of the software, both from a pedagogical and feature-usage standpoint. If instructors don’t understand how to use the tool, and if its usage isn’t facilitated by them, then the class won’t realize the benefits of using the tool in the course.
Over the past year, we have talked with many instructors about how they use StudyMate Class. On one end of the spectrum are those instructors who made the application available to students but didn’t really integrate it into their course. Not many students used it in those situations.
On the opposite end of the spectrum were teachers who were active facilitators of StudyMate projects and found creative ways to integrate the technology it into their course. These instructors gush about how StudyMate transforms their classes and how students can’t get enough of it.
Here are some teaching tips we’ve learned from instructors who use StudyMate Class. Instructors should:
- Contribute an initial set of questions or items to projects (so students can model the approach and the level of professionalism expected)
- Use the grading feature (so students will have the incentive to participate)
- Review items created by students and correct inaccuracies (so students don’t learn inaccurate material and to police behavior)
- Encourage students to edit entries by other students (students won’t naturally do this, even if the project settings allow it)
- Tell students how many items they should create for each project (to inhibit over-zealous students from dominating a project, and to discourage less-inspired students from doing nothing)
- Create a new project for each chapter, topic area, or test section (so students aren’t forced to continually review materials from earlier in the course)
Additional teaching tips appear at the end of the Instructor Quick Start Guide for StudyMate Class.
As you consider which Web 2.0 and collaboration tools to use with your students, keep these ideas in mind. While there is a natural tendency to gravitate toward technologies that are popular outside of education, you’ll have more success with those intentionally developed for teachers and students. The best technologies are those that offer a good measure of structure so that both teachers and students can use them immediately and effectively. And remember that technology is never a solution by itself. It’s only as good as the teacher who uses it.