Role of Small Projects in the Educational Tech Ecology

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A question that comes up frequently in ETS is what sorts of projects we should take on. I think it's a given that supporting university-wide services such as ANGEL, Blogs at Penn State, and Media Commons is crucial.

So is supporting projects for large-enrollment courses such as STAT 200, SPANISH 1-2-3, ENGL 202C, BIO 12/4/2 and so forth. It's great when one project can affect improve education for hundreds of students.

But what about smaller projects? Should the still have a place in ETS? You probably won't be surprised that I do think we should consider projects for smaller courses in some cases. Although large-scale projects are extremely important, I do think there are lessons that can be learned from smaller-scale projects.

  1. Smaller projects allow for experience with non-scalable tech. A lot of of the newer technologies don't scale well...at first. Yet if we try them with smaller student populations, we might get more experience with them and be more prepared for when the tech hits prime time.

  2. Larger classes have more resources. The Spanish Basic Language Program transition to online learning has been a stunning success...but it relies on a dedicated tech-support person to support it across all the sections and instructors. Few small courses will ever have anything approaching this level of support. I think we all know this subconsciously, but if we at ETS only deal with large courses, we can be lulled into thinking a typical instructor has more resources than is really available. Been there, done that.

  3. Small classes provide good examples of how to use technology. When I am looking for examples of how to use a new form of technology in different ways, it usually comes from a smaller class and an instructor who has tried it out on a smaller scale.

  4. Advanced classes are smaller classes and advanced classes usually have more higher order learning goals. Although it's important for ALL classes to include chances for reflection and analysis, sometimes it's the case that a student won't have the prerequisite skills or knowledge to perform at the highest learning objectives - that may come in a later semester (in a smaller class). More advanced classes may also require interesting tech that a lower-level class may not need...yet.

  5. Most classes at Penn State are smaller classes. They may not have the TA's or even the podiums to use. How can these classes all be improved? The Teaching Learning Assistant program is a large-scale program that can help many instructors, but it assumes a limited tool set and limited use of the set. Experimentation may or may not be possible.

The list above explains why I think it's nice to have smaller projects in the mix, but even I would admit that we still have to be careful on how to maximize our bang for the buck. I do think it's important to consider 1) How outcomes can be shared, 2) How to encourage instructors we work with to share within their department/college and especially 3) Templatizing new tech. If we build an innovative quiz, media exercise, game or presentation format for one instructor, can we expand its range for other disciplines? Interesting issues to ponder.

I will share one resource sharing story that surprised even me. Several years ago two of us at ETS worked on an animation for the heating of supercritical fluids At the time, it sounded fairly obscure and I admit that the instructor had to spend quite a bit of time explaining the concept enough to us so that the team could get it built. But...lo and behold, several years later, the concept re-emerged at a different campus in a different course in a required course for a large group of engineers. The second instructor was quite happy to see that we had this animation available.

Although it was one specialized animation...it really did have the potential to impact more students than we would have guessed.

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