Nine Guidelines for Instructional Innovation in the Classroom.
(Note: I first published this on the IL Blog in 2007. But given the growth of the Innovations Lab over the past few months, I thought it would be a good idea to re-post it.)
New technologies abound on the web! Naturally, innovative professors will see potential uses for them in their individual classrooms to communicate material and engage students in sustained and deep learning. On this frontier of classroom innovation, it is important to balance the instructional benefits of innovation with the goal of maintaining a well-ordered and smooth running classroom. Innovations that are well-meaning can also be unintentionally disruptive to the learning process. As professional educators, we are responsible to know the instructional benefits of our innovations, and we are also responsible for understanding the potential difficulties or issues that our students may have when engaging with the material.
Below is a list of guidelines that every professor should be aware of when implementing innovative teaching techniques into his or her courses. These apply to all aspects of the instructional experience: from implementing a new text-based activity into seminar, to linking to current articles in the news from a discussion board, to attaching audio files to a graded paper returned to a student to implementing podcasts or vodcasts to a welcome announcement to utilizing 3rd party web services in your teaching. Every one of these instructional “moments”, and obviously many more, require professional acumen and discernment.
1. The professor is responsible for what happens in his or her classroom. Ultimately, a professor is responsible for all that goes on in his or her classroom. Our professional compact with our students is that we will deliver the best educational experience of which we are capable. If we choose to use innovative strategies, we must be aware of and responsible for the positive outcomes, but also for difficulties that a student might encounter.
A non-technical example would be in the language that we use on discussion boards. As professionally, we consciously use language and concepts appropriate for the level of the course and the students. This is almost a truism and certainly a commonplace for the professional educator. When we add a new presentational technique to our teaching (using a new technology like audio feedback on papers for example), we need to be mindful of the consequences of those choices we make. It is our class, and therefore, ultimately, our professional responsibility.
2. Instructional material or techniques should tie directly to the learning
outcomes for a course.
Everything we do in the classroom should be directly related to the learning outcomes and learning experiences of our students. If it doesn’t (or only tangentially), we probably shouldn’t use that technique.
A professional educator can clearly articulate to his or her students (and colleagues and him or herself) the purpose of any instructional technique he or she implements.
3. Be aware of file sizes.
New media files (audio or video in particular) can quickly become large. A .wav file (the MicroSoft standard audio file), for example, can quickly grow to 10 or 20 megabytes. Large files like this may work perfectly on an individual’s computer or over a LAN (or even cable modems), yet students on slower DSL lines (or 56K dial-ups) may have trouble with these files.
As a rule of thumb, files larger than a few megabytes, can cause problems for your students.
4. Understand and use techniques that are likely to be available to all
Many recent computers and browsers can handle many types of files automatically, yet one has to be aware that less common files types may pose difficulties for some students. (And sometimes even standard types will be challenging for a few students.) As a rule of thumb, use standard, common file types. Also testing the material out by sending it to a few colleagues on different systems can help spot obvious problems ahead of time.
5. The professor has to be able to support the innovations developed for
his or her class.
A professional educator who deploys a technical innovation into his or her classroom has to be aware that the Help Desk probably will not be able to lend technical support to students. As innovations are absorbed by the institution, one can assume that more support will be come available, but in the short-term, the professor must assume that he or she needs to be able to reasonably support his or her students.
6. Have alternative modes available to transmit instruction to students. Related to the guideline above, it is important to have an alternative way to transmit the material to students. For example if one uses an audio file, then having a text transcript available (or easily created) for students who cannot access the audio would be important.
Letting students know that you will help them if they are having trouble accessing the material goes a long way in heading off problems of frustration.
Also, using technical innovations as supplemental materials, rather then primary instructional material is helpful. If a student can continue with a course (producing project and taking tests for example), then technical hurdles are less of a crisis for the student.
7. Be aware of consequences of using 3rd party services.
Many third party, web-based services are available on the web, and some faculty may see instructional value in using them. Ranging from podcasting, to video streaming (uTube) to wikis, these services can be attractive and relatively easy to use.
The professional educator needs to be aware of the policies of these third party services. Some may, by default, make your material available to the wider internet. This is the case for uTube and some podcasting services for example.
One should even consider advertising that student might encounter when accessing an article on a third party web site, for example.
A careful understanding of any service used (policies, technical requirements, etc) should be considered before using such a service to supplement a professor’s instructional strategies.
8. Inform students if any material they post will be accessible beyond the
9. Start out conservatively, and ask for frequent feedback from students.
Using innovative techniques in the classroom (from simple text-based seminar techniques to more elaborate technology-enhanced presentational or interactive seems) can be quite gratifying for professor and student. It can enhance learning, increase student satisfaction and contribute the creation of life long learners!
It is a best practice to introduce innovative techniques carefully and methodically. Make sure that the outcome you intended is being met, and that you can support your students adequately. To this end, it is also important to regularly ask for student feedback on the new techniques that you develop and deploy. You may find that you need to adjust your strategy or technology. Or you may find that need to tighten up the content and instructional material.