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Professor, ITaP seek faculty to collaborate on new learning technology

When Bill Watson taught his first undergraduate class on computer and information technology, he was baffled by a lack of motivation he noticed in his young students compared to their adult peers returning to school from industry. Each day he struggled to help the freshmen understand the course’s concepts, as well as its application to their future careers, but the students tended to remain unenthusiastic.

The experience was so startling it prompted Watson to change his research focus to explore educational systems and their pitfalls, as well as potential solutions. Now an assistant professor of learning design and technology at Purdue, Watson wants to help shift the educational system to learner-centered engagement and skill building, as opposed to knowledge delivery through traditional lectures, in part with new technology to support such a change.

Currently, a technology tool with all the elements Watson has in mind doesn’t exist. But Kyle Bowen, ITaP’s director of Informatics, is partnering with Watson to create a personalized educational system, which will provide four primary pieces for use in driving student learning: record keeping, planning, instruction and assessment. The goal is to move beyond current learning software to create a system that helps students define their own learning paths and keep track of their progress.

Bowen also encourages faculty who may be interested in implementing similar alternative instruction methods to contact him to try the technology, receive more information about the initiative or suggest other ideas they would like to see developed.

“Delivering any new technology to the classroom requires significant forethought and planning,” Bowen says. “We need help from faculty across all areas to identify new instructional uses and potential challenges of the tool to help guide us as we move forward.”

The system also would incorporate the idea of measuring student success based on mastery of specific and pre-defined skills, as opposed to the traditional 4.0 grading scale, which denotes largely how a student did compared with others in a class without a lot of context to show what they actually learned.

Because Bowen’s team already has developed technology that enhances student learning with mobile applications such as Mixable, Hotseat and JetPack, Watson has high hopes for the creation of a usable platform that incorporates badges, a way for learners to get recognition for their skills and display them online to potential employers, schools, colleagues and the community. Bowen and his team are exploring using Mozilla Open Badges as one possibility.

“We want to help students set independent goals and specific, detailed learning objectives that can be attained by doing real-world projects — collaborating, talking through content, online discussions, blog posts, podcasts, etc.,” Watson says. “Then, at the end of the course, students would have a portfolio of completed projects that demonstrate their competency through tangible achievements.”

Watson recognizes the challenges related to such a systemic overhaul. But as universities continue to receive less state and federal funding, as well as mounting pressure from employers to provide career-ready graduates, Watson believes more people will support a change.

“In society today, we need collaborators and resourceful individuals who can solve complicated problems they’ve not encountered before,” Watson says. “Our goals in imparting knowledge need to reflect the needs of society, and we can no longer take a one-size-fits-all approach.”

While the technology Watson has in mind would be new, the idea isn’t. More than 100 years ago, the founder of Montessori education began emphasizing student independence, freedom within limits and respect for a child’s natural psychological development. Watson is interested in applying similar principles to higher education by using technology to help instructors transition from “the sage on the stage” to a mentor, coach and facilitator role in learning.

“We’re talking about dramatic, transformative shifts in education, and developing innovative learning software will help lay the groundwork and ease the transition as instructors adopt these methods of learning,” Watson says. “It’s not going to be an easy task, but I’m convinced it’s necessary, and it’s going to take a lot of people pulling together across the system to make sustainable change.”

Writer: Andrea Thomas, ITaP, 765-496-8204, thomas78@purdue.edu

Sources: Kyle Bowen, 765-496-7486, kbowen@purdue.edu

Bill Watson, 765-494-9735, brwatson@purdue.edu

Last updated: April 23, 2012