The Right Tech For Real Results
Bevin Ashenmiller, Assistant Professor, Economics, has little patience for “technology for technology’s” sake. As an educator, she feels that simply adopting any “gimmicky” new device or program that comes along is a poor way to advance the real goals of pedagogy. This is why she found last summer’s Digital Scholarship Institute so rewarding. Bevin says the DSI not only introduced attendees to new digital tools, it also became a forum for debate about the value of different academic technologies. “The thing that is most challenging as a faculty member is to learn how to leverage technology in a way that enhances learning,” she says. “DSI staff gave us a bunch of choices based on what people had asked for, as well as other things that might be useful. At the end of the day the most helpful part was the opportunity to talk about engaging technology in an appropriate way.” This is not to say that Ashenmiller is in any sense a Luddite. In fact, she came to the institute hoping to learn how she might use podcasting to enhance her Introduction to Economics Class. The idea was to ask students to define financial terms and then illustrated them with real-world examples told as podcast stories in the style of segments heard on the NPR Radio show, This American Life. An early obstacle was that students wouldn’t necessarily find it easy to learn GarageBand, the podcasting program she wanted them to use. So, she decided she wanted to present a GarageBand tutorial for her class as well. The tutorial would clarify information like how to raise and lower volume cut and paste media and how to use equipment at the oMac lab (formerly the PC 2 lab) in the library to finish the assignment. With the help of Jay Yip and others at the Digital Scholarship Institute, Dr. Ashenmiller’s class and tutorial were successful. In the process of outlining the assignment, she built a template for creating other audio essay assignments that other faculty could use simply by downloading and making slight changes. “I wrote prompts for my assignment and later shared them with a couple of other professors. It saved them time when they tried constructing there own audio coursework. It made the human capital cost for doing a podcast assignment a lot lower,” she says. “For example, Shanna Lorenz, (Assistant Professor, Music) used some of my suggestions but then added instructions to incorporate human subjects in podcasts. My students hadn’t been asked to talk to real people.” In other cases, Ashenmiller explains, discussions with institute members and staff convinced her that an ambitious idea would be more trouble than it was worth in terms of educating students. “I went in with lofty ideas but came out and did something less,” she says. One such concept was to transform a learning experience into an exciting video scavenger hunt through Yosemite Village. “I was toying with was the idea of having classes in my California Environment Semester take a field trip to Yosemite to shoot videos that would shed light on the questions of how we define wilderness, how we use public land and how we use space from an economic point of view. Yosemite is, in theory, public land, yet there is also a town there. I wanted them to record images of human habitation and human waste and then to compare the reality with classic images of Yosemite through time,” she says. “But, should this really be a video project?” Ashenmiller wondered. The others at the DSI helped her work out the answer. “Nothing is free. If you add something to your class you’re taking something away. You can’t just throw video clips in and say you’re using technology for scholarship. What I thought was interesting for us as part of the Oxy community was to say, ‘There is a right way to achieve technological literacy.’” In the end she decided that taking still photos was just as effective – possibly even more so – than wasting time acquiring equipment and teaching the necessary video skills. Students were delighted with the exercise. “They rode the bus snapping shots of license plates from different states, listening for languages and experiencing the environment in a new way,” she says. At the institute, Ashenmiller enjoyed the chance to share the “deeper questions about technology we were all struggling with” as well as to get an overview of new tech trends. She says that although she dismisses Twitter and Blogging as irrelevant to her students’ current needs, she was intrigued to learn about new spatial monitoring, graphing and charting aspects of social media that might be of value in research. “Exposure to these things starts the process. I can’t be sure exactly how I could use these things in the future, but then, once you know what technologies are out there, you can study them more in depth when you need them.” Ashenmiller found it comforting to realize how many of her fellow institute members were pondering issues beyond the nuts and bolts of the technology. “It was nice to realize we were all asking the same questions. If you use technology, how will it be assessed in your promotion and tenure process? Or, how do we go out into the Oxy community and share the information we’ve learned here with one another?” To that last question, she’s already visualizing answers. “We should have a digital library including prompts written by faculty in different disciplines that would help us to use their skills to enhance our classes. For example, I’m one of many who would love to download prompts created by someone in the English department that would help me set up writing assignments for students. As we each made our own changes and additions to the prompts, we could store the updates in one common database,” she suggests.
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