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  December 9, 2002

Faculty Encouraged To Tap
Students' Technological Expertise
By Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu

Imagine Peter Rabbit without his blue jacket. Until recently, that's what students in Margaret Higonnet's Children's Literature class had to do.

Higonnet, a professor of English, used to illustrate her lectures with images from children's books projected from a document camera or photocopied in black-and-white.

Image: Jeff Hawks, Betty Hanson and Mark Dechiaro
With the help of Mark Dechiaro, standing, a student educational technology assistant, and Jeff Hawks, a teaching assistant, political science professor Betty Hanson incorporates a video clip of General George Patton into a PowerPoint presenation for her introduction to international relations class.

Photo by Shannon McAvoy

Then she heard about a program that pairs faculty with undergraduates trained in the appropriate use of instructional technology. And now Peter Rabbit appears in class in full color finery.

Last spring and summer, Higonnet worked with two Student Educational Technology Assistants (SETAs) to post such images - in color - on a newly created WebCT site. WebCT is course management software now widely used on campus.

It was a lot of work, but it was worth it. Many of the books Higonnet discusses were published in the 1700s and 1800s and are "completely unavailable," she says. Even more recent works are often out of print.

"I can now make the images available, so the students can see what they look like," she says. "The details are part of the visual code of the book."

There are other advantages, too. Not having to ask students to order a lot of books kept the cost down, Higonnet says. And the images remain available on the web, so that students can revisit those they've forgotten, or look them up if they miss a class.

Higonnet had had no previous experience with electronic technology in the classroom. Without the help of a SETA, she says, she could not have embarked on the project. "The SETAs were terrific teachers," she says.

Technology as a Tool
The SETA program, launched in spring 2001, has helped several dozen faculty incorporate technology into their teaching. Professional staff coordinate the projects with the professor and the SETA student; and others - specialists in fields such as graphic design, television, or presentation software - are available for consultation.

Although nothing can substitute for an outstanding educator, instructional technology can support faculty members' teaching goals, says Kim Chambers, manager of the Instructional Resource Center, who is technology coordinator for the SETA program.

"No one thinks technology is the be-all and end-all solution to quality of instruction," he says. "The important thing is knowing what tools are available and using them most effectively."

Gillian Thorne, coordinator of the SETA program, notes that educational technology can help involve students in their own learning. "Today's student population tends to have a higher level of expectation of engagement in the material," she says.

The SETAs are able to offer suggestions from the "consumer's" point of view, she adds: "They see a course as a student would see it."

Engaging Students
Last fall, Betty Hanson, a professor of political science, at the suggestion of teaching assistant Jeff Hawks, began including short four- to five-minute film clips to introduce concepts such as nationalism, power, terrorism and human rights in her introductory course on international relations.

She began a lecture on nationalism with a scene from the movie Casablanca. "After I showed it, the room was deathly silent," she says. "That was when I realized the great potential of this approach to engage students in the subject matter."

For the rest of the semester, Hanson rented videos from a store, searched for scenes that encapsulated particular ideas, and projected those segments from a VCR. The experiment was so successful, she decided to assemble a "library" of film clips.

Although she knew what she wanted to do, she did not have the expertise to put it into practice. "I had an idea on my mind, but I had no clue how one digitizes a film," she says.

So Hanson approached the SETA program for assistance, and undergraduate Mark Dechiaro spent the summer teaching her how to go about it. She also consulted with Chambers, to make sure that she was not infringing copyright.

Hanson says the project has given her "a whole new approach" to teaching. "The project sensitized me to how important images are," she says, "particularly in an introductory course."

It's also earned her kudos from her peers: "When I describe the project to colleagues at professional meetings, they want to borrow the CD."

Bill Berentsen, professor and head of the geography department, is working with a SETA on another application of instructional technology: online quizzes that will assess students' knowledge of place names and help them learn.

"Knowing place name information is a first step to more complex learning about other countries," Berentsen says. Although it is information he believes should be taught in schools, he finds the majority of freshmen have little if any knowledge in this area: "This is a mechanism to get them up to speed."

Berentsen had used an online quiz before, but he applied for a SETA to help him make it more attractive for students to use and to provide more information to the instructor about the students taking the quiz.

The quizzes he and SETA Jonathan Striker are developing will be available in a WebCT site. Each will include a test bank of questions, and the answers will be electronically graded as soon as they are submitted. If need be, the student can repeat the quiz at any time.

Berentsen says he could not have tackled the project without assistance. "Jonathan is friendly, capable, and flexible," he says. "He knows WebCT well; I'm a neophyte."

Applying for Help
Thorne, the program coordinator, says now is a good time to apply for a SETA for next semester. Students are also available to work in winter and summer breaks. There is no deadline for applications.

Appropriate projects range from the simple to the complex, but must relate to teaching and learning. Help is available both for faculty with little technical expertise and for those with experience. About half the requests the program receives currently are related to WebCT, but they need not involve WebCT.

Interested faculty may apply online at:, or send e-mail to: or

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