Campus & Community

Important step in teaching with technology

6 min read

Tailoring the recipe

You eat a wonderful meal in an Italian restaurant and ask the chef for the recipe. “But by the way,” you say, “I can’t afford veal so I ordinarily use ground beef. I cook for 50 instead of for two, and I don’t like broccoli. But please tell me the recipe.”

Chris Dede uses the restaurant scenario as a metaphor for efforts across higher education to incorporate technology into teaching. Faculty hear about innovative ways that their colleagues are using new technological tools and want to know what recipe to follow, even though different teachers, subjects, and students necessarily require different approaches.

“Certainly we know it’s not a matter of adopting recipes. It’s a matter of adapting things,” says Dede, the Timothy E. Wirth Professor in Learning Technologies at the Graduate School of Education. “This is a very interesting and exciting time to be involved with learning technology, but it’s a confusing time as well. I think a lot of us struggle with how to use [technology] effectively in our teaching.”

Improving teaching and learning with technological tools was the topic of a one-day workshop in early May sponsored by the office of Provost Harvey V. Fineberg and the Harvard Academic Computing Committee.

The workshop, held annually for the past three years, drew faculty from across the Harvard community who, like Dede, are greatly interested in using the new technologies to teach better.

But those same professors also don’t want to lose anything by incorporating technological approaches – especially not the personal interaction between teacher and student that has been a hallmark of teaching from its beginning.

As one of the workshop presenters, Lynda Applegate, put it, “I never believed – and still don’t – that technology replaces face-to-face teaching.” Her question, then, is “How can I use this tool, this technology, to provide information and collaborative kinds of support?”

The models discussed at the workshop vary dramatically. Applegate, the MBA Class of 1952 Distinguished Professor of Business Administration at the Business School, offered a vision of graduate business students downloading cases from course Web environments and engaging in a largely self-directed form of study. The online delivery of information has allowed Applegate to lecture less and engage students more in discussions.

Jeffrey Huang, assistant professor of architecture at the Graduate School of Design (GSD), offered a contrasting vision of a Web-based course environment as an “empty vessel” in which teachers and students come together to create something new. The challenge in creating a Web site for a GSD course called “Fundamentals of Computer-Aided Design” was “to create a virtual place that complements the physical place. … It is an empty vessel at the beginning that grows throughout the course, and it’s filled out by contributions from students, from teaching assistants, from instructors,” Huang said. “So at the beginning, nobody knows where we’re going, and this unexpectedness is actually part of the learning experience.”

Of course, not everyone embraces the pedagogical value of unexpectedness. Workshop participants noted that some students who are quiet in class find their voices online, but that also means that community standards for conduct must be adopted so students communicating anonymously don’t cross the normal boundaries of propriety. Giving individual grades becomes a problem, Dede pointed out, because much online work is collaborative. And students and professors will also discover as they experiment with new technologies that they have personal preferences for one method of communication over another, even if they are fluent in all of them.

A few workshop participants wondered whether professors still will be relevant in the future. As one asked, “If you put all your content on the Web, what happens to the teacher?”

“What I spend less time doing now is lecturing, and more time facilitating discussions. … But I can assure you that I have never worked so hard to prepare for class,” Applegate assured him.

In fact, some professors have had the same reaction that Howard Gardner did when he first began preparing teaching materials for the Web: “I had no idea it was going to take so much time!”

Gardner, the John H. and Elisabeth A. Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Graduate School of Education, shared his technological teaching experiences with the workshop audience during a panel called “Managing Time, Resources and Incentives in a High-Tech Teaching Environment,” along with fellow panelists Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, the James Duncan Phillips Professor of Early American History and director of the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History, and John Halamka, associate dean for educational computing at Harvard Medical School and chief information officer of CareGroup Health System.

Perhaps their most important message is that it’s possible to create a wonderfully rich learning environment online, offering everything from a searchable text of the diary of an 18th century midwife to an interactive demonstration of how a hiatus hernia causes reflux – but only with the active support of a technological team. “I’m a very low-tech person who approaches this with some trepidation,” said Ulrich about her own efforts in putting course materials online. “But I have wonderful graduate students and a very, very supportive staff.”

“We recognize of course that you’re absolutely time bankrupt,” Halamka told the faculty. “You’ll provide guidance, you’ll provide oversight, but you’ll likely want to delegate a lot of the tasks of uploading handouts and managing the site, etc.”

Gardner noted that there is still a lot of learning to be done about teaching online. For instance, he was disappointed at the level of classroom discussion in a course in which some of the materials were offered online. However, he wasn’t sure whether that resulted from students putting all their energy into written statements, or the nature of the material covered, or, as he thinks likely, students respond more readily to a live lecturer.

Still, despite challenges, faculty at the workshop believed that technological tools will greatly enhance teaching.

“We’re supposed to talk about how hard it is and what happens to you” when you build an online course environment, Ulrich said. “But right now I am just thrilled with what’s happened here, and I want to measure up. I want to be a different kind of teacher through the process of helping to develop this Web site.”

This story was reported entirely through viewing workshop videos at Contact John Lenger at