Redefining Education

Faculty Focus: Dale Fitch, School of Social Work

My first foray into technology in the classroom was a course management system (CMS) to post readings. As the number of tools in the CMS grew, the ways in which I used those tools began to evolve. Concurrently, my research agenda involves the development and introduction of new technologies in the human services. One day I found myself thinking about the classroom and the educational process much the same way I viewed information systems in agencies. As soon as I did that, the light bulb went off and I have not been quite the same since. In sum, I use various aspects of information systems design, requirements analysis, organizational cybernetics, soft systems methodology, and critical systems heuristics to reframe how I think about the educational process. Now that I am working on a committee that is moving our Master of Social Work degree online, I am in full-blown information systems thinking. At the heart and soul of my thinking is the difference between analog and digital constraints.

My entire educational experience until a few years ago was analog. Education was bound by time and space. The space began in a building that had classrooms. The time began in the fall and lasted for nine months. The time was further limited to about seven hours per day, five days per week. This was roughly my entire educational experience all the way through my PhD degree. Learning occurred in chunks of time (1 to 3 hours) taught by an instructor that my classmates and I could physically see. We read from analog devices called books and produced work on an analog device called paper. A singular effort was caught on this paper that was turned in for a grade. At the end of a fixed amount of time it was deemed that we had learned something. To think that education could be anything other than what I describe would seem quite strange.

Well, it is time to be strange. In many ways digital is counter to everything that is analog. It is not constrained by time or space. ‘Where’ has relatively little meaning. Time also has a relative meaning. Yes, some of our classes will be synchronous, but the discussion that follows will most likely be done in an asynchronous fashion. Reports will be produced (as opposed to papers will be written) and submitted online.

Nothing about this is particularly earth shattering, unless we take a few more steps down the digital path. What, exactly, is contained in these reports? Surely ideas and thoughts put together in a cogent, logical, well-structured manner. But these various thoughts are actually captured digitally. Being digital, they are not constrained by the report or even by the particular purpose for which they were written. In many ways the thoughts can go from this report for this purpose and then be used in this other report for this other purpose. The very notion of Copy/Paste (analog constructs) obviates the association between the product and the process.

Once I started removing the distinctions between the product and process, then all sorts of things began to change in my thinking. If the digital thinking behind technology can loosen the bounds of time and space, how might it impact any classroom? Case in point: Collaborate is the video conferencing tool we currently use in Blackboard. It serves the function of facilitating synchronous, online communication by circumnavigating the constraints of space. So, what could that possibly do in the traditional classroom? Yes, circumnavigate space. One semester I had a fairly large lecture class and one of my activities required students to work at the board producing diagrams. I was assigned a meeting room that had one very small, portable whiteboard – certainly not up to the task. However, I was blessed with a very large projection screen. Voila! I set up a Collaborate session in the classroom, had the students produce their work on their laptops, and then I shared their screen with the rest of the class. Not only could I accommodate the participation of many more students in a shorter period of time, we had absolutely no chalk dust to deal with!

What’s next?

Social work is very much comprised of one-on-one or group interactions. Many of our practice classes have large segments of time devoted to role plays and similar activities. At present our role plays are constrained by the number that can occur within a given amount of time. Digital obviates those constraints. We are now considering using video to capture the role plays and posting them as discussion board items to elicit feedback from peers and instructors asynchronously. Video clips of interactions can also be used in an assessment module where students are asked which techniques are being used. Will all interaction skills training take place online? Not necessarily. We may still opt to do some weekend intensives and all of our students will still have field placements/internships where they will be receiving one-on-one supervision from a clinical instructor. But the online technology will certainly open up avenues for initial skill development that is not possible in the traditional classroom.

The blog and journal tools in Blackboard have received my recent attention due to my work on ePortfolios. While that is another discussion all together, for me, the end product, or the portfolio, became the process. That is, having students reflect on their acquisitions of skills, capture those reflections digitally, and revisit and reflect on them as they matriculate through the curriculum. Then, by the time they reach their capstone semester and they are putting their ePortfolio together, it is more a matter of refinement of their existing work as opposed to creating something from scratch. The reflections necessary to refine their products are ideally suited for the Journal tool. I also encourage them to either make it specific to the skills they learned from the course or the skills exemplified in a specific assignment. In essence, these reflections then become part of the learning scaffolding that is facilitated by using the technology in the ePortfolio.

Fundamentally, I have my students to stop thinking about ‘completing assignments for a class,’ both of which are historical, analog artifacts. Instead, I spur my students on to think about their work as reports that exemplify skills they are learning and developing. The implications of this approach are manifold, not the least of which is that no longer do students take classes in order to get a degree. Rather,they enter into learning environments to develop the skills they need to be social work professionals. I have seen my students get this shift. It is pure joy when I see it happen. Do all of them get it? No. But many of them do.

I do not want to give the impression that technology by itself is a panacea to the analog classroom. There are certainly digital constraints I deal with all the time beginning with computer operating systems, platforms, and bandwidth issues. Technology-facilitated education will always be a sociotechnical endeavor. My reliance upon instructional technology support will grow in the future. Having said that, though, to the extent that digital constraints can be more easily remediated than analog constraints, I more likely than not will be increasing my use of technology.