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ETeaching Technologies: The Good, the Bad, and Ways to Pave a Smoother Road Forward

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By Dr. Ann McCann, Associate Professor, Director of Planning & Assessment, Baylor College of Dentistry

The lure of cutting-edge educational technology is very strong for dental educators. We tend to think that having the latest and greatest etechnology will attract the best students and improve the learning environment, but are e-solutions always best? Does an e-solution provide more opportunities for independent study? Does it allow more students to attend our courses? Does it make better use of diminishing financial and teaching resources? And most importantly, can we rely on it to facilitate student learning?

I have explored these questions from three vantage points: as a professor, as an administrator, and, first and foremost, as a student. I was fortunate to participate in an online doctoral program in educational leadership, an outcome of my considerable self-reflection as an ADEA Leadership Institute Fellow. I enrolled in the University of Nebraska program because of its good reputation and established use of distance education. I wanted to study on my own time, continue working, and be home in the evenings for my husband and young teenage daughter.

The courses were initially sent to me each semester on disk, but over time they were moved to the university's Blackboard site to facilitate access. The courses focused on extensive reading and writing assignments. They also involved critiquing classmates' work through asynchronous online discussions. Some courses assigned group projects, which is a very different experience when you only have ecommunication. Only one class, Advanced Statistics, had recorded lectures, and I was very glad to have them.

Online education can be quite "faceless." In all of my 60-plus credit hours of doctoral classes, not one student relationship continued beyond the completion of a given course. Similarly, I had to work hard to get the attention of faculty members. I found I needed to travel to the school several times a year to establish relationships. This was particularly important in establishing the relationship with my dissertation mentor.

I have been able to employ some of the etechnologies I used as a doctoral student in my teaching at Baylor College of Dentistry (BCD). I teach two graduate courses, Educational Research and Educational Assessment, to dentists and dental hygienists working on master's degrees in education. The dental students are often enrolled in different specialty programs that have extensive and varied clinic rotations. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to find a class time that all can attend, so I have adopted an online course format supplemented with some in-class sessions or one-on-one meetings. Next semester, I will use Skype, which allows users to make voice calls with or without video over the Internet, to interact with a student living out-of-state, and I will combine the online versions of my PowerPoint slides with my lectures using Camtasia software.

As Director of Planning and Assessment at BCD, I had the opportunity in 2008 to survey our dental and dental hygiene students about their preferences related to eteaching and elearning. Not surprisingly, they felt very well-equipped for elearning and expected all of their lectures to be digitally recorded and easy to find online. They liked to review ematerials whenever, wherever, and at any speed they choose. Despite this strong preference, they viewed ematerials as supplemental. They still wanted to attend the lectures, and they preferred traditional textbooks to etexts. Finally, they stressed that personal interactions with faculty members were very important to them. They did not want faceless teaching, a sentiment I shared.

As for learning outcomes, the literature shows that students can learn equally well with traditional and online course presentations and tools, but contrary to popular perception, online courses can be more resource-intensive and time-consuming than traditional ones. Instead of giving a lecture once a week, faculty have to be available for online student interactions and respond to questions within 24 hours. Depending on the type of course, student-to-faculty ratios for online courses should be maximized at 25-30:1 in order to keep faculty workload within reason. One might develop a course where lectures are broadcast to multiple sites by one lecturer, but other faculty members are available either locally or online to interact with students, answer their questions, and evaluate assignments.

The literature also shows that institutions lack the policies to smooth the implementation of eteaching. Developing appropriate policies and establishing ground rules will help maximize the effectiveness of this teaching approach. These should cover course content and evaluation, faculty compensation and workload, faculty and student training and support services, library access, intellectual property, and hardware, software, and technical support, to name a few.

On a final note, with so many technologies vying for our students' attention, how do we capture and keep it?The millennials manage multiple email accounts, keep up with their social networking pages, text on smartphones, upload pictures to online albums, use Twitter ... and the list goes on. I have noted some issues in communicating with students who juggle all of the above-mentioned systems. Our 2008 survey revealed that they preferred email for most communication with faculty, but I question how well they manage their use of multiple communications systems. I asked a student the other day if she had completed her online course evaluations. She told me that she used three email systems and Facebook, and she was not sure if she had seen the evaluation invitation or the reminders.

One way to sharpen the focus of millennial students is to increase the standardization of eteaching, at least at the level of the institution. Schools should consider establishing a template for ecourse syllabi, a location for eresources, and policies that describe what curriculum materials to create. They should also provide training for students and faculty. (In my own experience, the learning curve can be rather steep, and student survey respondents indicated a need for training among faculty as well.) One final way to get students' attention is to keep attuned to their learning needs by routinely asking them about their epreferences.

Although adopting eteaching methods may not mean that students will learn more than in the past, we are talking about a different type of student now. They are very adept at Internet technologies, and they expect these technologies to be incorporated into their education. In fact, they view ecourse materials as their right, so we need to move forward with this endeavor. These new eteaching and elearning technologies will create opportunities for individualized instruction, study strategies, and course remediation. But let's be selective in adopting etechnologies and make sure they meet our educational goals as well as students' elearning preferences.

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