Teaching and Learning Conference at Elon University: Technology As a Prop – Not at Center Stage

By Stefanie Panke
Editor, Social Software in Education
Instructional Analyst, School of Government, University of North Carolina
Rob Moore
Instructional Designer, SOG, UNC
Greg Whisenhunt
Multimedia Developer, SOG, UNC

[updated 8.27.12]

The annual Teaching and Learning Conference at Elon is a regional event that attracts professors, instructional designers, postdocs and other academic personnel from North Carolina colleges and universities  The 9th edition of this free, one-day conference took place on August 16. As instructional designers at UNC School of Government, we seized the opportunity to spend a day of professional development and took home new ideas, concepts and insights.

Morning Plenary

The keynote address by Ashley Finley, Director of Assessment and Research from the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), set the pace for a stimulating day. Her talk, “How to Hit a Moving Target: Assessing Engaging Learning in Changing Environments,” emphasized the application of student-centered rubrics. She presented the “Integrative Learning Value Rubric,” a set of rubrics developed in the context of the VALUE (Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education) project.

In this project, expert teams developed rubrics for fifteen learning outcomes. Finley paired the use of carefully designed rubrics with examples of creative assessment using web 2.0 tools. “I am not at all tech savvy,” Ashley Finley admitted, “but I am thrilled by the possibilities for reflective practice.” She added, “Obviously, without creative assignments, the technology is just that, a technology.” Finley illustrated her point by showing several examples of e-portfolios and other student-centered activities. A particularly interesting example came from Georgetown University’s collaboration space.

Students in the course “Bioethics and the Moral Imagination” at Georgetown used Youtube Analytics to annotate Obama’s speech on the contraception mandate. After Rush Limbaugh’s derogatory comments about a Georgetown student, this topic was going to dominate the class anyway – the instructor used innovative tools to steer the debate towards an analytical approach.

A recording of Finley’s talk is available on youtube:

After the opening plenary, 16 talks divided into three concurrent sessions allowed for plenty of choice. Here are some we attended and found particularly stimulating.

Morning Concurrent Sessions

Catherine Ross (Wake Forest University) and Peter Felton (Elon University) delivered a great hands-on workshop on “Evidence of Teaching Effectiveness.” What kinds of evidence can faculty use to improve and evaluate their own teaching? Ross and Felten argued for a triangulation strategy that moves beyond student evaluations and includes peer evaluation and teaching portfolios. “Teaching may be the only human activity a person can practice and practice and actually get worse at.” Using this quote from Nyquist and Wulff (1996, p.41) as a starting point, the presenters explored the formative and summative side of teaching evaluation.

Ross and Felten argued that, ideally, both aspects should work hand in hand. They encouraged participants to include student work as evidence of student learning and achievement in their portfolio. In small groups, participants then critically analyzed two sample teaching portfolios that used this approach. Although many of the questions that participants collected on the whiteboard in the beginning of the session had to remain unanswered, it was a highly informative introduction to alternative forms of evaluating teaching. We will definitely add “The Teaching Portfolio” by Seldin et al. to our reading shelf.

Mary Jo Festle (Elon University) facilitated a participatory workshop on building “Inclusive Class Discussions.” Instructors from various disciplines came to the session with varying prior experiences with classroom discussions. Festle took great care in organizing the structure of the workshop in such a way as to provide an excellent example of the potential effectiveness of an engaged and inclusive class discussion. The session began with a group brainstorming on the challenges and benefits of class discussion and Festle made sure that multiple participants were heard from.

In addition to having participants provide information, Festle also provided a brief literature review and some helpful suggestions and resources for how to build the class discussions, which can be downloaded from the Elon conference site. The latter part of the session had the attendees, working in small groups to brainstorm the answers to questions, focused on three components for creating inclusive class discussions – setting clear expectations, sending welcoming cues, and getting off to a good start. The results of the brainstorming work were compiled by Festle into a Google doc accessible at: http://tinyurl.com/inclusivediscElon.

The panel “Teaching with Moodle” comprised Elon faculty members from various disciplines who have been using, plan on using, or are in the middle of transitioning to Moodle. Each panelist presented a strategy for how he/she is using the learning management system. Some of them planned on mirroring as exactly as possible the way they used Blackboard. Others approached it by playing around with every bell and whistle that was available and decided how they wanted to structure their use from what they learned. Either way, it was helpful to see real world examples.

Scott Simkins (A&T State University), author of “Just in Time Teaching: Across the Disciplines, Across the Academy,” devoted his talk to introducing just-in-time-teaching (JiTT) as a blended learning approach. JiTT, a method that emphasizes the value of carefully designed assignments to test students’ understanding and pre-conceptions of the subject matter so that classroom sessions can address –just in time – the specific knowledge gaps of the group. The method was first used for Physics lessons and later adapted to other subjects and fields of study. Its format works well in a blended learning setting.

Afternoon Concurrent Sessions

Paula Patch and Dan Reis (Elon University) presented”#Winning Approaches to Teaching with Twitter” during one of the afternoon concurrent sessions. This session started with a discussion of the basics of Twitter and quickly moved into a free flowing conversation around the pedagogical reasons and potential benefits and challenges for using social media in the classroom or in support of the classroom. The participants had different backgrounds with social media ranging from several instructors who were not sure how social media could or should be used to those comfortably using it in their courses and strong proponents of its potential.

Patch and Reis were able to help provide both the technical explanation of social media, specifically Twitter, but more importantly helped facilitate the discussion on specific educational uses of Twitter in the classroom. By providing this context, they gave naïve social media users the opportunity to ask questions, receive examples, and use cases where social media may be useful for them. The presentation is posted online and is helpful for someone new to Twitter and interested in learning some of the basics for the medium.

Social media is a relatively new concept for teaching, and a discussion such as this is important for looking at ways that it can be integrated into the curriculum. The most important comment that emerged from the discussion was that it’s up to the individual instructor to decide whether social media is an appropriate technology for their session. The flexibility of social media offers many opportunities for use in the classroom, but it is important to remember that it should only be used when it can be an asset and not a liability to the instructor.

Tony Crider (Elon University) was overwhelmed by the success of his workshop on “Experiential Learning in the Classroom: Reacting to the Past Games.” He said, “I expected ten people to show up.” Luckily, he was able to provide enough handouts for the crowd of approximately 30, all eager to restage the 1999 panel debate over Pluto’s status as a planet. “The Pluto Debate” is an educational role-playing game that has students take on the roles of real-life astronomers who debate whether or not Pluto should be labeled a planet. Inspired by Barnard College’s Reacting to the Past series, students play one of nine astronomers arguing the definition of a planet at a 1999 debate in New York City and a 2006 meeting of the International Astronomical Union. Most players are assigned to the plutophile or populist faction, some players are undecided.

To win, players have to convince their peers of their astronomer’s position, follow a hidden agenda, and learn en passant subject knowledge as well as academic discourse skills. Each character sheet comprises individual reading assignments and online resources. For example, our team’s persona, Alan Stern, was the principal investigator for NASA’s New Horizons mission en route to Pluto. In between plays, students can use the “Planet Data Plotter” to generate diagrams that support their position – an ideal opportunity to critically reflect data visualization. Tony Crider has created a comprehensive Website on the Pluto Debate and other Reacting to the Past Games at rttp.org (registration required).

All teaching and learning conferences aim to foster networking, open discussion and an innovative climate that sprouts new ideas. A regional event like Elon’s has the advantage of attracting a broad variety of participants. This makes for unexpected interdisciplinary connections. Over lunch, we found ourselves in a discussion about the importance of promoting academic writing skills for natural science students with two immunology researchers. The conference organizers also setup a Twitter hashtag of #ElonTLC and set up a large computer monitor displaying these hashtags, using twitterfall.com to display the backchannel for the conference.

What set Elon apart from similar conferences was the fact that the conversation and networking activities were not confined to coffee and lunch breaks but continued throughout the sessions. Many presenters included small group work, brainstorming, icebreaking exercises and open discussions. A factor that contributed to the discursive atmosphere was the schedule: Each session was 70 minutes long. This allowed for exploring a topic thoroughly and engaging the audience beyond the usual conference routine of “20 minutes presentation, 5 minutes for questions, next speaker, please.”

Sometimes, this approach even allowed the presenters and audience alike to forget about time constraints. During “Experiential Learning in the Classroom,” the question came up: “Does anyone know how long this session is supposed to last?” No one really cared. Not bad for the usually drowsy after-lunch slot at 3 o’clock in the afternoon.

We are already looking forward to next year’s Elon Conference!

4 Responses

  1. […] By Stefanie Panke Editor, Social Software in Education Instructional Analyst, School of Government, University of North Carolina Rob Moore Instructional Designer, SOG, UNC Greg Whisenhunt Multimedi…  […]

  2. […] Read the conference review at Educational Technology and Change Journal. By panke | Posted on: August 27, 2012 at 11:20 | Posted in Conferences, Educational Technologies | Comments (0) […]

  3. […] By Stefanie Panke Editor, Social Software in Education Instructional Analyst, School of Government, University of North Carolina Rob Moore Instructional Designer, SOG, UNC Greg Whisenhunt Multimedia Developer, SOG, UNC The annual Teaching and…  […]

  4. Thanks for a great recap and the JiTT shout-out. Many of the sessions have related resources available at the conference site: http://www.elon.edu/e-web/academics/teaching/tlconference/program.xhtml. For more on Just-in-Time Teaching, see the handout to this session, which includes links to a wide variety of resources: http://www.elon.edu/e-web/academics/teaching/tlconference/jitt.xhtml. See also: http://serc.carleton.edu/sp/library/justintime/index.html.

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