How Technology Can Work Side by Side with the Teacher

In our recent blog posts we have focused on the factors that drive a successful adaptive learning implementation. In this post, we explore the success story of one of our clients, Dr. Paul Smith.
Paul is a Senior Lecturer in Chemistry at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU), and an enthusiastic user of technology aimed at supporting teaching and learning. In late 2015, he started using CogBooks’ adaptive platform to develop and deliver his courseware to two classes: a part-time distance learning class and a full-time undergraduate class. Below, he explains why technology is essential for teaching in the future, and his experiences with adaptive learning.

What is your strategy to get ready for the future of education, and how is adopting technology a part of that?

Paul: I am really interested in exploring avenues of technology enhanced learning - where we can utilize IT tools to help us, as instructors, help the students. I’ve been looking at two key areas for a number of years. One is utilizing tools for students’ preparation outside of the classroom – pre-and post-class. I’ve also been looking at utilizing technology to help facilitate greater interaction in class. Between me as the teacher and the students, and between the students themselves.

For me, CogBooks fell into the category of helping students outside of the classroom, utilizing online materials and trying to get a more effective method for delivering those resources to the students.

In terms of my view of the future, I don’t want technology to replace the teacher, I see technology as working side by side with the teacher. In some instances, it’s perhaps changing your role as a teacher to become a bit more of a designer of learning experiences, rather than being the ‘traditional’ university lecturer delivering a speech for an hour! I think the future lies in being somebody who’s an expert in the field, has the ability to be flexible in their delivery, and tries to investigate ways of incorporating more student-centered approaches to that delivery, making them feel more a part of the experience. And exploring avenues where we can utilize the latest technology to make it more accessible.

How has MMU supported you to do that?

I’ve been given time and funds to explore these avenues. In some instances – particularly in CogBooks – there hasn’t been a precedent set for this kind of approach so it’s been something original and unique. I’ve been given the creative license to do that.

Before you started using CogBooks, what were your biggest challenges in teaching chemistry?

Chemistry is quite a dense subject. There’s a lot of theory. Some of it can be a little bit abstract at times. Students have to develop a visual element to their academic development because chemists like to work in pictures and structures. We like to see how atoms and molecules are arranged. One useful aspect of using the CogBooks technology is that it allowed me to break up the large dense theory component and compartmentalize them into smaller bitesize chunks. I’ve used a lot of videos, screencasts and diagrams in the illustration of my material.

Is this course at introductory level or more advanced?

This is an intermediate one. They have had an introductory year in 1st year, so this is a bridge between 1st and the more advanced topics in 3rd year. So the topics that I’ve been teaching using CogBooks are providing an underpinning for more advanced topics later on.

How did you use CogBooks in your teaching?

We used it on a full-time BSc Chemistry degree course. The premise of this was that the CogBooks materials were used as part of a flipped classroom approach so students would use those materials to help them prepare for class. We could utilize the time in class to look at problem solving exercises and questions. The second course was a foundation course for students who are part-time and studying online. They work full-time in the chemical industry, so the CogBooks materials were their sole source of delivery.

In the flipped classroom course, did you actively use the dashboards to find out which students were struggling and where the bigger problem areas were?

Yes, that was very helpful. From the dashboard you get in CogBooks, you can see formative assessments that the students were completing and where they were having problems. It gives you more insight into potential areas which might need further attention. Without that information, you haven’t got awareness of the particular topics they’re struggling with.

Can you describe the students’ adoption of this new approach to learning?

I was apprehensive when I first started it. I thought it might be too different from what they’ve had before. I was taken aback by how well it was received. In particular, they highlighted the way in which it was broken down into specific topics. They liked the quizzes and the links to the videos and screencasts. The vast majority of people fed back that they found it easy to navigate, to get to what they wanted. Students' experience with the adaptive course was predominately positive

How much support did you get from our team?

The support worked well. I had an initial training session with a rep from CogBooks and then support from the instructional design and development team. Whenever we asked for any changes it was done promptly, and communication throughout was very good.

Was this format of teaching more effective for you?

Because the tools were a bit more meaningful to the students, and they could get what they wanted, when they wanted it, I didn’t get quite as many queries and questions from students. They became a lot more self-sufficient. I think it saved time in that respect.

Did the use of CogBooks impact the exam results of students?

We made a comparison between the exam results and there are certain areas on the exam where I saw a sizeable increase. If I compare them with previous years there has been an increase in the mark with students over time. A major plus is the students’ perception of their experience, and the degree of satisfaction they’ve got from using this, rather than what they’ve used before. The overall perception of the students definitely is that it’s helping them learn.

Would you recommend CogBooks to other instructors?

I would. I think it helped me having some prior experience in designing eLearning resources. I had quite a lot of materials, like videos and screencasts, at my disposal. If you’ve not had much background with eLearning, you might find it a bit more challenging, but you do end up with something that is more worthwhile than simply loading up your lecture notes on a virtual learning environment. I think definitely try it. Learn more about Paul's project here.