(Left) Dr. James Snell, Director of Instructional Technology Services (ITS) and (Right) Sharon Gibson-Mainka, Lead Instructional Technology Consultant for Texas A&M University.

Texas A&M University: In the Digital Era, Students and Teachers Learn Together


Article originally published on E-Learn Magazine on Nov 07, 2017 – Click here for the Spanish version

With a wide range of programs at their disposal, teachers at Texas A&M are receiving the support they need to implement technology in the classroom.

At Texas A&M University (TAMU), in Brazos County (United States), faculty not only teach, but also learn how to effectively teach through technology.

During an Introduction to Biology class, a teacher realized that in general, his students had trouble when it came time to hand in assignments that involved empirical, quantitative and critical thinking skills. He concluded that 23% of the class was in danger of failing, or even worse, of abandoning the course.

In order to improve these deficiencies, he used technology to encourage student participation and stimulate active learning. He also developed a series of online problem-solving games as a form of self-testing, which provided students with immediate feedback so that they could, along with their teacher, identify their areas of weakness and learn how to overcome them.

The technology solution the teacher turned to was the Core Curriculum Technology Enhancement Grant program, which the university made available to teaching staff with the support of Instructional Technology Services (ITS), the department that enables and promotes the effective use of technology in teaching and learning.

“Providing teaching staff with support is crucial to success in the digital environment,” explained ITS Instructional Technology Lead Consultant Sharon Gibson-Mainka. “We administer and develop the university’s online learning management system which is Blackboard Learn, and we provide help and training in the use of its teaching tools. We offer training workshops on a variety of software packages and on best practices for integrating technology in the classroom,” she added.

The commitment made to the university, which is centered on a sincere belief of the power of education technology to broaden pedagogical skills in its faculty, is to foster e-learning and to efficiently develop e-Campus, the university’s learning management system (LMS) powered by Blackboard Learn. E-Campus simplifies the development of online or hybrid courses. Texas A&M’s efforts to achieve its distance education targets came to fruition in 2002, when ITS was formed. The department’s current director, Dr. James Snell, told Blackboard how this came about. “It was originally conceived as a way of providing a centralized education technology resource. But it wasn’t widely accepted on campus at the time.”

However, the situation today is very different. As a result of a variety of programs and initiatives led by ITS, Texas A&M has succeeded in cultivating a big response to online education at every level among not only administrators, but also students and teachers.

The Quality Matters (QM) program is one of the most successful initiatives. It provides teaching staff with guaranteed course design quality, while focusing on continuous improvement. Due to the support in courses such as Course Management, Instructional Design and Multimedia Applications, teachers can produce truly rewarding courses in a more effective way. The campus has thus seen an increase not only in teachers’ willingness to use technology, but also in the quality of the teaching.

“Teachers are encouraged to integrate technology into their teaching activities, especially those who find it stressful to keep up to date with it,” said Sharon. “We provide teachers with assistance in all matters relating to integrating technology in the classroom, whether it be to set up an assignment on Blackboard Learn, help design a course, or reviewing a subject in order to ensure that its content meets quality standards. Faculty know we are here to provide assistance in any way we can,” she added.

Bearing in mind their objective of providing support to the teaching and learning community, ITS has, for example, started a university-level Liaison Program, where an ITS consultant can be a main point of contact that can offer support whenever necessary and depending on the institution’s needs. This support can include the following:

* Facilitating or scheduling personalized training for teachers, personnel and assistants

* Arranging individual or group sessions on the use of eCampus, as well as improving course design, etc.

* Attending department meetings, as requested by the dean

* Making university visits periodically (every two weeks, once a month and every three months) to answer questions and help solve technical problems that might arise with eCampus.

Another example of the support that ITS offers the teaching community is the Innovative Pedagogy Grant Program, which gives teachers and staff in general, the opportunity to learn how to effectively incorporate technology to a face-to-face, online or blended course.

The Innovative Pedagogy Grant Project is a three-phase program that consists of face-to-face and online training sessions, as well as in-person meetings with the ITS instruction team. Its objectives are to:

* Identify best practices relating to modern pedagogy in a technology-oriented learning environment

* Incorporate active learning

* Identify applicable learning technologies

* Improve learning results

* Increase retention rates

The expected results from this program are to:

* Incorporate practices that will increase student motivation

* Improve student retention

* Develop quantifiable learning results from the course

* Integrate learning technologies

* Implement modern pedagogy

The education technology programs offered at Texas A&M have become so popular among teaching staff, that spots fill up quickly.

“This semester we ran the Flipping your Class program, based on a strategy of inverting the typical class-time and assignment elements. Students therefore review lectures online at home, and classroom time is then devoted to discussions and practical activities,” Sharon pointed out.

“At the end of the program, 17 out of the 30 teacher proposals submitted were chosen. The program lasted a week, and there were various workshops relating to making videos and carrying out activities in flipped classroom mode,” she added.

All these programs attest to the way in which ITS supports the university’s teaching and academic personnel. It is a relatively unique department in the university realm, in that it consists of education technology advisers who are trained in pedagogy and instructional design, and who work hand-in-hand with software system administrators, analysts and developers.

ITS has become a helping hand for teaching staff who are now much more willing to face the challenges of technology, if accompanied by someone guiding them along the process. “In this way, we try new options that will benefit us all in the course development,” concluded Sharon.


Photos by: AFP – Julia Robinson