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Innovation 101

Academic TechnologyAs new technologies make their way into the classroom, students and teachers at Tufts are discovering different ways of learning.


Part of a professor's job is to discover a student's potential. Last semester, with a little help from a new technology, Jim Glaser did just that.

The political science professor and dean of undergraduate education was evaluating public speaking presentations in his class, "Race and Class in American Politics," when he noted the outstanding performance of one student in particular.

"It was so clearly something she was good at," says Glaser. "She never really recognized she was good at it."

Using a software program called WebDiver, which allows instructors to annotate segments of a videotaped presentation that students can reference on the web at their convenience, he provided detailed feedback to the student—but he didn't stop there.

Glaser also encouraged her to develop her talent, pointing her toward a public speaking course in the Department of Drama and Dance and connecting her with people in the communications industry.

Glaser has been assessing his students' public speaking skills since his arrival at Tufts in 1991, but he says his prior method was ineffective. " I was using a video camera and I'd bring the student back and we'd sit and watch the video together," he explains.

"The possibilities are enormous and can only be limited by your imagination."

— Amelia Tynan, vice president for information technology

With WebDiver, instructors can annotate the presentation with feedback "just as you might annotate a paper in the margins," says Glaser. "The comments are connected to the moment in the speech where the student had done something well or poorly. That's not something we were capable of doing before."

Tufts faculty are increasingly turning to new technologies in the classroom as a means of helping students better understand both course material and their own abilities. This process is facilitated in part by Academic Technology, a department that operates within University Information Technology (UIT).

"The possibilities are enormous," says Amelia Tynan, vice president for information technology at Tufts, "and can only be limited by your imagination."

The AT staff works with faculty members to find applications that can help enhance the learning experience for students.

"You really need to think deeply about what are you trying to teach," says David Kahle, director of UIT's Academic Technology department, "and the best way to let the technology come up and support that."

Personal Learning

One way professors are using technology to get students to think differently about themselves is through digital storytelling. Last semester, Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service staff members Ify Mora and Gary Van Deurse led an Experimental College class for freshmen called "Inside/Outside: Crossing the Lines of Race, Class, Culture and Community." For one part of the class, students examined their home communities through that framework by crafting a digital story.

Using multimedia software, students recorded personal accounts about topics ranging from ethnic identity to racial discrimination, accompanied by personal photos and other relevant imagery.

"They were challenged by the process and in the end felt as if they had really accomplished something," says Van Deurse. "Their stories were powerful."

Freshman Maddie Buras used the opportunity to explore the racism that was unearthed in her hometown of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Buras shared the story of how her neighborhood had been leveled and her high school filled with racial tension.

"When I tell people my house was destroyed, they don't see what it was really like until they can see the visual images of someone's house and hear someone's personal story about it," she recalls.

"Reflecting on your own experiences through these lenses integrates the personal with the academic," says Mindy Nierenberg, student programs manager at Tisch College. "To do it through a means that combines the visual, written and spoken word is something that's a very rich learning experience for the student."

Tisch College hopes to use digital storytelling as a tool for students working in the community through the Tisch Scholars program.

"I think it rounds out the learning," says Van Deurse. "When you push the students to think about these concepts visually, it helps them re-examine what they think they know."

Get Out The Map

Visual understanding of concepts can be applied to policy as well as personal stories. Ronnie Olesker, a lecturer in the political science department and a PhD student at The Fletcher School, attended a summer seminar sponsored by the Academic Technology group where she learned about the visual understanding environment (VUE), software that facilitates concept mapping as a way of gathering and understanding information.

Concept mapping

A portion of a concept map produced in Ronnie Olesker's class using VUE.

In concept mapping, issues relating to a core topic are laid out around the central idea. "Between the concepts are links," explains Olesker. "Each concept is fed into another with a link that defines the relationship between the two concepts."

Last semester, she introduced VUE to students in her sophomore seminar, "Israeli Foreign Policy and National Security." Instead of writing policy memos, she decided to ask them to transform their knowledge into visualized content.

"I wanted students to really achieve analysis, go deep rather than wide in their knowledge and assessment of the content in the class," says Olesker. "I thought that concept mapping would really help them internalize the knowledge rather than just spit it out in five pages and forget about it."

Students were initially hesitant, Olesker says, noting that the shift to using fewer words rather than long-form essays posed a challenge to what they were used to. But as the class went on, most of them found the process beneficial.

"Immediately in the class discussion, once they had done their first concept map, they knew the concepts. They just nailed it," recalls Olesker. "They understood the relationships, they saw the bigger picture."

"It forces you to get rid of the unimportant aspects of a complex issue. You really have to boil it down to what was really the most important," says David Suzenski (A'09), a history major. "You remember the basic framework forever afterwards." (continued)

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Profile written by Georgiana Cohen

Homepage photo by Alonso Nichols for Tufts University Photo

This story originally ran on Jan. 29, 2007.