Technology Related Challenges in Higher Education Science Courses

Adding technology into classes in higher education is becoming increasingly important. Students are beginning to expect it and administrators are seeing the cost benefit. Within higher education, including technology in science courses (biology, chemistry, physics, etc.) presents various challenges, one of which is truly unique to the sciences.

ADA Compliance with Technology

Image of a teacher in a traditional classroom containing students with diabilities.

SOURCE: http://www.campusanswers.com/

The ideas contained in ADA compliance spans all courses offered to the public. The basic idea is that all materials and information presented in a course must be available to everyone equally (Jones, 2014). If we show a video, it must be closed captioned for students who are deaf.

These requirements present a challenge with regards to technology use in courses. Everything that the students will be using in the course must be accessible to everyone equally. While most faculty I know don’t think about it, when we post videos to our course pages, those video must be accessible to all students, including blind and deaf students. What about when we let our students use their cell phones or clickers to answer questions in class? Would this activity be accessible to a quadriplegic student? We all need to consider these questions when working on our courses.

There are ways of overcoming some of these issues. Youtube will automatically create captions for videos that you upload. It is important to realize, however, that the teacher still needs to go through these captions to make sure that they are correct. This is doubly important in the sciences which often uses very complicated, technical words.

A blind student working her way through the alt texts on a website.

SOURCE: https://yoast.com/image-seo-alt-tag-and-title-tag-optimization/

When we create presentations and documents, we need to ensure that all images in these files have alt text associated with them. The alt text allows a screen reader to describe the image to a deaf student making the image accessible.

The problem that remains concerning ADA compliance with regard to technology is that compliance is strictly the responsibility of the instructor and the institution. Therefore it is imperative for the instructor to ensure that everything they are releasing for a course is accessible. It turns out that there is no requirement that the content providers (like textbook publishers) make their content ADA compliant. Faculty must be extra vigilant.

Reliability

Man with a technology failure laying his head on his laptop keyboard in frustration.

SOURCE: http://www.computerweekly.com/news/2240205650/79-of-businesses-have-had-major-technology-failure-in-the-last-year

Course technology needs to be reliable and sometimes it simply isn’t. Anytime we are using cutting edge technology, we run the risk of that technology failing. Even simple things that we don’t think about, for instance, many of my textbooks are available through an app on my iPad. I let my students know that they can utilize this app as well. When I used the app on my older iPad, it would frequently crash which was a real frustration. My new iPad, however, has not experienced this problem. The difficulty is that while I know how to fix this issue (get a new iPad), it is not a feasible solution for students.

All technology can have reliability issues. Sometimes IT needs to take a service off line to make repairs or upgrades. Sometimes the internet is just slow. Regardless of the reason, reliability issues are very detrimental in terms of students moral. We all know how it feels when we are working and suddenly the website crashes and we are stuck. Not only is it frustrating, it turns the students off to the assignment as a whole. Often teachers are inclined to add technology to a class so that it better engages the students’ interests. Failure of that technology will cause the students become “turned-off” to the material that we are trying to teach them.

Technology reliability.

SOURCE: http://iotbusinessnews.com/2016/04/08/94510-choosing-lpwan-technology-reliability/

There are a few solutions available for reliability issues. First it is important to understand that as a teacher, you have no control over when IT needs to shut things off. As such, we need to be open with our students and let them know up front that if they can’t complete an assignment because IT took the service down, that we are willing to extend the assignment deadline. It is important to make sure that our students don’t think that we will punish them when something outside their control occurs.

Another solution that I have found very useful is to stay away from using technology that is right at the bleeding edge of advancement. For instance, it will be a while before I would even be willing to look into using virtual-reality goggles in my courses. These cutting edge technologies are so advanced that they will very likely have reliability issues as the bugs are being worked out of them. As a chemist, I can definitely see how VR equipment can be used in my classes, I’m just not willing to utilize it until I can be sure that it will work reliably.

Whenever we utilize technology we need to know who to contact in case something does go wrong. In my chemistry courses I utilize Sapling Learning as a homework system. Before I started using the service I made sure that I knew exactly who I could contact with issues. Additionally I determined who the students could contact if they have issues. Also, I try to use services which have 24 hours support. Many of our students do not only work on their coursework between 8am and 5pm. Students needs to be able to contact someone for help when they run into an issue, even if it is at 2am.

Science Labs

One of the biggest distinctions between the sciences and courses in other fields is the laboratory component of our courses. Nearly every science course has an associated laboratory component that allows the students to get hands-on with the topics they are learning about in the course. These lab experiences are critical in the future careers since many science professional spend a lot of time in laboratories.

A traditional chemistry teaching laboratory.

SOURCE: http://mybtechdegree.ca/virtualtour/chemical-engineering-technology-lab.html

Incorporation of technology into the lab experience is difficult. Even adding little bits of technology to a physical lab session is challenging. When I was a chemistry student, during one of my experiments I was performing some calculations on my calculator while the reaction ran beside me. During the period, a small amount of acid from the reaction splashed on my calculator. Before I could do anything, it had melted a hole completely through my calculator which destroyed the calculator. While the calculator wasn’t expensive and was easily replaced, imagine if that had happened to one of my students and their iPad. The point is that many of the inherent dangers in science can be very harmful to most technology that is brought into the laboratory.

A laboratory with computers throughout.

SOURCE: http://phys.org/news/2012-09-combination-metamaterials-singular-optics-fueling.html

Even with this difficulty, we are beginning to see a different avenue opening up with regards to online laboratories. Late Nite Labs is an online service that offers online, virtual labs. Instead of going into the laboratory to perform a lab, the labs can be virtually performed from anywhere. This is a great way of including lab in fully online courses. We are beginning to utilize them as pre-lab for our traditional labs so that our students have a better understanding of what they are going to be doing when they get into the physical lab.

There are downsides to virtual labs that will hopefully be alleviated in the future. For instance, the virtual labs are not ADA compliant. They each require the sure of a keyboard and a mouse which makes the inaccessibility to paralyzes students and those with physical disabilities. The other difficulty with virtual labs concerns career preparation. As I mentioned previously, most scientists spend a lot of their time in labs during their careers. As such, they need the hands-on experience of working with the tools of the trade in physical labs during their education. Virtual labs are well and good but they do not give you a tactile feel for how to physically perform experiments which will be critical in their future careers.

Technology in the laboratory has come a long way since I was a student. While there are no perfect solutions at present for incorporating technology safely and effectively into labs, we are reaching the point where it is only a matter of time. The development of virtual reality may eventually create a perfect system for performing virtual labs. However, I think I am a bit of a traditionalist in this regards since I think all science students needs to physically do laboratory experiments. It is in these experiments where all the fun and excitement of science can be found.

Course Redesign

Attempting to lay out the different pieces of a course to improve it.

SOURCE: https://www.umes.edu/MCS/Content.aspx?id=34406

Course redesign is a big challenge with regard to incorporating technology into courses. Inclusion of technology into a course should be well thought out and designed. Adding technology simply for the sake of adding it is useless. When I replaced my paper and pencil homework system with Sapling Learning, I did a lot of research and thought a lot about how I wanted the homework to work. Did I want the student limited to only one attempt of the homework assignment or did I want them to have multiple attempts? How many homework problems should each assignment have if the students have multiple attempts? Etc. All of these questions needed to be answer before I could just replace one thing in my course with another.

What about conversion of a class from traditional to hybrid or online? These changes have a great deal more challenge involved and need to be thoroughly studied. Many of our traditional courses are lecture based. Lectures can be boring and they get even more boring when you have to watch them from home as a video. Moving a class online is not simply a matter of replacing lectures with videos, paper homework with virtual, etc. It is important to fully plan out the new course. It must be designed to be an online course.

It is in this design that the problem exists. Designing courses takes a lot of time. Typically, this is time that faculty do not get paid for. Often it is assumed that development of new courses falls under our current job expectations. The problem is that we are being asked to teach our current class while developing an entirely new class. Administrators need to understand that poorly designed online courses are horrible for students and bad for the reputation of the institution. As such, they need to invest in their faculty. They need to pay faculty extra to redesign their courses in order to get the best product out to the students. There are various ways for this investment but it needs to be done.

Conclusion

Overall, the challenges associated with including technology in the classroom are not impossible to overcome. It is important the the faculty member understands the challenges and thinks about how they are personally going to ensure that those challenges will not become problems for them. In many cases, faculty members need to be deliberate when they are working on these problems. Some of the problems can also be overcome if faculty are paid to design/improve their courses rather than having to do it on top of their other responsibilities. When more time can be devoted to the development a better end result will be achieved.

References

Lee, B. A. (2014). Students with disabilities: Opportunities and challenges for colleges and universities. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning46(1), 40-45.

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