Piloting New Technologies in the Classroom

Printby Michael Lewis, Associate Vice President for Faculty Development, Associate Professor of Chemistry

This past summer I was offered the opportunity to pilot the use of a chemistry molecular drawing application for iPads in the course, Principles of Organic Chemistry II.  The application itself, ChemDraw, is not new; it is the standard in the field of Organic Chemistry.  However, the iPad version is new, and the company that owns the software saw this as an opportunity to expand into the area of higher education.  All students were provided with iPads containing the ChemDraw program from the software company.  I don’t want this blog post to focus so much on the details of the pilot; as expected, there were issues, but overall it went relatively well.  Rather, I want to discuss the broader topic of piloting a new technology in the classroom.

The most important consideration I had going into the pilot was that the technology did not get in the way of the overall learning goals of the course.  Certain topics had to be covered, and the pilot technology could not prevent or hinder those topics from being presented to the students in a manner conducive to learning.  Of course, this is a fairly low bar.  I’m basically saying I did not need the technology to add anything to the course; I just needed it to not get in the way.  Still, given the considerations I will discuss below, meeting this low standard was sufficient.  Ideally, I was hoping the pilot technology would add something new and useful to the course that enhanced student learning, and I believe this happened.

While the above consideration was paramount, the excitement in participating in the pilot was due to the pedagogical opportunity to work with the software developers to improve the product moving forward.  The application was in a decent form in terms of having added value for the course, but there was significant room for improvement.  I was able to suggest changes to the company that will make the product more functional to instructors using it to teach Organic Chemistry, as were the students in the course.  Perhaps more importantly, I was able to convince the company to broaden the platform beyond iPad to a web-based application.  This will make the ChemDraw application much more accessible; almost all students have a mobile device that can access the internet, though not all of them will have an iPad.

Related to the consideration of making the software better for use in an Organic Chemistry course in general, I was also cognizant of optimizing the product for the purposes of my teaching approach.  Specifically, last Spring semester I taught an Organic and Biochemistry course for Physical Therapy and Occupational Therapy students, and I flipped the classroom; student acquisition of the basic content of the course was moved outside the class period, and we used the class time to work and discuss example problems.  The course went very well; however, in reflecting on how the course could be improved it lacked in making the class discussion inclusive for all students.  Not surprisingly, large numbers of students did not participate in the discussion, and although class participation increased throughout the duration of the course, there was certainly room for improvement.  The ChemDraw application immediately struck me as a possible solution, since it allowed students to draw answers and email them to me in real time.  So students who were not comfortable raising their hand to discuss the material could draw structures, and I could share them with the class anonymously.  Thus, for me, the greatest benefit to participating in the pilot was finding, and helping develop, a product that will truly benefit SLU students in future courses I teach.

There are quite a few considerations in participating in a pilot.  While it is imperative the piloted technology not inhibit the content delivery, I believe it is important to enter the pilot with the possibility for tangible benefits to the instructor and to SLU.  I went into this pilot hoping to find a solution to the primary issue I had in flipping the classroom: significantly enhancing the number of students participating in the class discussion.  I feel confident the piloted technology will help address this issue, and I was able to suggest modifications to the application that will help make it possible.

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