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April 3, 2014

Senate plenary session:

Using technology in the classroom


Michael B. Spring

Michael B. Spring

Pitt faculty discussed how their use of technology in the classroom has evolved during the University’s Senate March 19 plenary session, “The Research University in the Age of Digital Information.”

University Senate President Michael B. Spring opened the plenary session. “This plenary is intended to begin a discussion that looks at the seeds of instructional, research and entrepreneurial efforts that may be good examples of new efforts to engage the best of digital technology in simple forms that will grow and mature,” Spring said.

Seven faculty members detailed the findings of their research on technology and how they are incorporating technology into their courses.

The plenary session has been archived at

Chandralekha Singh

Chandralekha Singh

Chandralekha Singh

“Using Technology to Transform Science Teaching in Large Classes Before, During and After the Lecture”

Singh is director of the Discipline Based Science Education Research Center and a faculty member in the Department of Physics and Astronomy in the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences.  In her classes, she utilizes the “Just-in-Time” method, which is designed to foster learning before, during and after the lecture. Before coming to class, students answer open-ended reflective questions online. Singh said she then uses students’ answers to better prepare the next lecture, focusing on areas where the majority of students seem to need help.

Students in big physics classes can come from many backgrounds, she noted, and out-of-class questions give students time to think about topics at their own pace.

“This is a very good tool for formative assessment, something that provides feedback to you as an instructor about what students on the whole have learned and what each student has learned because you actually on your computer can see what each student answered,” Singh said.

During class, each student is assigned a clicker (as was each member of the Senate plenary session audience). Singh presents a multiple-choice question to the class and students are able to send in their answers electronically, as she demonstrated in a mock question to those in attendance at the plenary session. Students then discuss the clicker questions among themselves. Singh found that interaction between students during class can generate learning. If students have learned a concept themselves, Singh said, they can better explain it to a classmate sitting nearby. She said this provides opportunities for co-construction of knowledge, where students figure out a problem using the combination of both their ideas, instead of attacking a problem alone. “That’s what I mean by co-construction,” Singh said. “One plus one can be greater than two.”

After class, self-paced web-based tutorials are used to help reinforce the lecture.

Cynthia Lance-Jones

Cynthia Lance-Jones

Cynthia Lance-Jones

“Integrated Studies Course and Related Technology Use in Medical Education”

Lance-Jones, a faculty member in the Department of Neurobiology and assistant dean for medical student research in the School of Medicine, said that “the creation of a good doctor requires practice and that practice needs to take place in a safe environment.” To that end, Pitt medical students now are using computer simulations in an Integrated Case Studies course to better their craft.

By employing these simulations, the course helps medical students make the transition from classroom learning to putting their knowledge into practice in the later years of medical school. Lance-Jones said computer simulations for clinical encounters are helpful because they are fast and engaging, allow for rapid feedback and serve as a ready assessment of student performance.

In the simulations, where a group of students work around a large monitor, the students play the role of the health care provider. “Each case unfolds itself in small pieces or segments, encouraging students to stop, discuss and come to a group consensus as to what is to be done next,” Lance-Jones said.

The first goal of the simulation is information recall, where students must draw upon material learned during the first two years of medical school. The second goal is clinical decision making, the aspect where students must apply what they have learned.

Peter Brusilovsky

Peter Brusilovsky

Peter Brusilovsky

“Adaptive Tutorial Systems”

Brusilovsky, chair of the graduate program in information science and technology in the School of Information Sciences, defined an adaptive system as one that automatically is different to different users. Adaptive systems try to adapt information to the user. For example, Netflix offers personal recommendations tailored to what the user viewed in the past. “In our case we’re trying to combine our expertise in adaptive hypermedia with our education needs,” Brusilovsky said.

Brusilovsky and his colleagues created a system called QuizPACK to help students with self-assessment questions. When the students’ success rate with the program was found to be low, the faculty developed QuizGuide, which used topic-based adaptation — each topic is associated with a number of activities to help the student learn about the topic. Brusilovsky found that students’ knowledge grew when they used the QuizGuide model. He said students in general were more willing to access adaptive versions of the system by exploring more optional educational content.

Tony Gaskew

Tony Gaskew

Tony Gaskew

“Instructional & Outreach Use of Live Crime Scene Video”

With Pitt-Bradford’s Crime Science Investigation House, Tony Gaskew has been able to stage crime scenes and put his criminal justice students in live scenarios where they can put what they have learned into practice in a stressful environment. Using video recording equipment, including body cameras strapped to the students, instructors give them real-time performance evaluations while peers can share their classmates’ experience by watching online via Blackboard. Once students enter the CSI House, cameras placed in various rooms trace how they process the mock crime scene as the investigation unfolds.

“I wanted to create a learning platform that would allow criminal justice students the ability to maximize the use of multiple learning styles,” said Gaskew, director of UPB’s criminal justice program and coordinator of criminal forensic studies. “I wanted to create an applied criminal justice pedagogy.”

Forced to use critical thinking skills and make quick decisions, the students can engage with live actors in over 1,000 controlled mock scenarios. Gaskew provided a video example of two students entering the house to find an injured woman who claimed her child had been abducted. The video recorded the students’ responses to the conflict.

David Birnbaum

David Birnbaum

David Birnbaum

“Digital Humanities”

While most humanities students think they can’t write computer programs, David Birnbaum’s undergraduate Computational Methods in the Humanities course is proving otherwise. In this class students write, design and implement projects while letting the computer do what it is made to do.

Birnbaum compared learning programming language to learning another foreign language and said that computer programming can be just like writing. By using humanities computing — writing original programs to conduct research — he said his students are able to achieve feats they once thought unattainable.

“Computer literacy should be more than just using the Internet and using a word processor. It should mean using the computer to get things done on your own terms,” said Birnbaum, chair of the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures.

Heidi Donovan

Heidi Donovan

Heidi Donovan

“Symptom Management and Psychoeducational Interventions to Improve Outcomes for Patients With Cancer and Their Family Caregivers”

Heidi Donovan, a faculty member in the Department of Acute/Tertiary Care and director of the Office of Community Partnerships in the School of Nursing, discussed the e-health innovation being used to improve care for cancer patients. With patient-doctor visits being limited, technological e-health interventions increasingly are providing patients with care in their own homes, outside of traditional health care facilities. Connecting with patients via computers, health care professionals are able to provide cancer patients with psychological support and patient education to help them deal with the disease.

According to Donovan, the percentage of households with computers rose to 76 percent in 2011 while the number of homes with Internet access increased to 72 percent, making such in-home health assistance possible for many cancer patients. She admitted that while this is an encouraging step, the system does not help everyone because technology is still somewhat disconnected from theory.

“Technology should facilitate translation of research to practice,” Donovan said. “What we learn from WRITE symptoms (a web-based symptoms management intervention to improve patient-health care provider communication for women with ovarian cancer), for example, should be readily translatable into practice and it shouldn’t depend on this web-based platform that we’ve designed to deliver it.”

The goal of WRITE symptoms is to “promote conceptual and behavioral change among women with ovarian cancer so that they begin to recognize the negative impact the symptoms are having on their lives, that they gain confidence communicating with their health care providers,” Donovan said.

Christian Schunn

7Schunn“Panther Learning: Peer Review Systems in Instruction”

Faced with the challenge of providing better feedback to students in large classes, psychology department faculty member Christian Schunn created his own technological method.

Realizing that it did not always have to be the instructor who provided feedback, Schunn created a computational procedure and algorithm that granted students the means to conduct peer reviews.

To prevent possible problems of anonymity and accountability, Schunn made the reviews electronic instead of face-to-face and pushed the students to take the reviews seriously. He was able to achieve this by giving students grades based on how their document ratings correlated to their classmates’ document ratings.

Schunn’s system has now been used by over 27,000 students across the world. “I decided to approach this as a research project in addition to something I thought would be broadly useful in my own teaching and the teaching of others,” he said.


After the presentations, Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor Patricia E. Beeson asked the panel how faculty who aren’t engaged in technology research can start to use technology effectively in the classroom and how Pitt can help to facilitate the use of technology.

Singh noted that there is a “Just-in-Time” teaching book written on how to use the method; clicker questions already have been designed for different courses.

Schunn added: “The way in is through collaborative work. A number of these types of technologies were developed collaboratively.”

He said he believes Pitt could do more to facilitate that by “enabling team teaching instead of penalizing it,” giving more credit for team teaching or changing the way faculty members are able to report on collaborations with their colleagues on annual evaluation forms. He believes these steps would push people to work collaboratively, which he says is the key to success.

Beeson closed the plenary session by noting that contrary to what some believe, technology is aiding the traditional classroom experience. “We read a lot and talked a lot over the last couple years about how technology is changing the face of higher education … my belief that it’s not a threat but an opportunity is really enhanced by the talks that you gave today.”

—Alex Oltmanns