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  February 5, 2001

New Program Taps Students' Computer Saavy

If you're more comfortable with a chalkboard than a chatroom, more proficient with a projector than with PowerPoint, then perhaps there is something you can learn from your students.

This semester, the Institute for Teaching and Learning is launching a new program that hopes to capitalize on students' comfort level with computers in order to help less technologically inclined faculty members effectively incorporate the latest educational technology into their teaching. The goal is to promote better learning.

"The University is a shared learning experience," says Keith Barker, associate vice provost for undergraduate education and instruction and director of the Institute for Teaching and Learning. "Faculty don't know all the answers, and students don't start from base zero. We're tapping into students' technological skills to help faculty teach other students better, so it's for the benefit of all."

Just before the start of the semester, a group of about a dozen undergraduates - mostly in their junior or senior years - spent two days training to become the University's first Student Educational Technology Assistants (SETA). They learned some technical skills, such as website development and the course management software, WebCT, as well as tips on how to manage their time effectively and work productively with faculty on a one-on-one basis.

During the next several weeks, each student will be paired for the remainder of the semester with one or more faculty, with attempts to match his or her particular skills with the project defined by the professor.

The technology assistants, who will be paid through the Institute of Teaching and Learning, will be supervised throughout the semester by professional staff. They will have opportunities to learn additional skills, such as PowerPoint and Photoshop, and will be allocated appropriate computer workspace.

They are encouraged to discuss teaching strategies with faculty and to help develop uses of educational technology that faculty can implement themselves. A Student Educational Technology Assistant might, for example, develop a website, but the professor will need to learn how to maintain the site.

Faculty who have plans for their classes that include initiating or improving their use of educational technology and would like to apply for one of the Student Educational Technology Assistants should contact Keith Barker at Initially, the program is being offered only at the Storrs campus, although Barker hopes to expand it in the future.

The students bring to the undertaking the same mix of enthusiasm, curiosity and willingness to experiment with which they developed their own computer skills. They say they are looking forward to working with faculty and expanding their own technological abilities.

"If I have a particular skill, I want to improve it," says Thomas Adams, a management information systems major, "and if I don't, I want to learn it."

Barker stresses that educational technology should not be an end in itself, but a tool to promote effective teaching and learning. "As faculty moved from writing on a chalkboard to writing on a white board, nothing changed in how they teach. Now we have on-line capabilities, but if all faculty do is take their notes and stick them on-line, what have we achieved? Students can read the notes, but they have no added value. You might as well give them a piece of paper."

If used well, however, educational technology can help faculty teach and students learn more effectively, he says.

During the time they are at college, students have to make a transition from the high school approach to learning - where "the teacher decides the pace and tells you when to do stuff" - to being able to learn independently when they graduate," Barker says. "Part of the responsibility of faculty members is to foster student responsibility."

And that requires a more hands-on, interactive approach to learning than just lectures, he says. Self-paced quizzes with instant scoring and class-related discussions with peers and faculty, as well as the ability to revisit lecture notes at any time, call up relevant images, and gain access to related articles, are some of the features that students say help them learn. All are possible on-line.

The concept of using students to help faculty incorporate computers into their classes is modeled on a program at Seton Hall in New Jersey. Launched four years ago, when the college introduced a universal laptop requirement for its 4,000 students and 300 faculty, the program now has 150 students from a wide range of disciplines.

Entry to the program is competitive, says Dick Gorham, director of UConn's University Center for Instructional Media & Technology, who has observed Seton Hall's model in action. "It's a prestigious position to have on campus, and it's regarded as a great thing to have on a resume."

Although UConn's Student Educational Technology Assistants initiative is not the first, it is one of just a handful around the country, says Gorham. "We hope to get ahead of the curve in how faculty use technology."

Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu