Professor Christopher Bone is transforming the way students learn Geography.
Chris has been teaching since 2003, and been responsible for his own courses at the University of Oregon since 2011. He teaches a variety of classes including ‘Our Digital Earth’ which asks students to collect and analyze location data from their world, and then learn to map, understand, analyze, and use it to make decisions and gain real-world insights.
U of O is eager to leverage emerging digital tech resources, and is leading the way in innovative programs1 that attract high enrolment and prime graduates for exciting career opportunities in the tech industry.
Chris spent last summer with his colleague Amy authoring the Top Hat Interactive Text: Our Digital Earth and used it as the core learning resource in his Fall 2015 class of over 100 students.
The pedagogical challenges of teaching a course with no precedent are as tangible as they are practical. How do you teach it? What do you teach? What digital resources can help inspire an exceptional learning experience? How do you motivate unengaged students in a way that they can connect?
I sat down (4,223.2 km away) with Chris, and we spoke about the challenges, insights, frustrations and triumphs of innovation in a traditional discipline, and going from a conventional pedagogy to a more resonant and engaging mode of teaching. The following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Forcing students to pay for a text that isn’t relevant feels lousy
Q: What daily problems were you facing during lecture that became the fuel for experimenting with digital pedagogy?
Professor Bone: The biggest problem was not being satisfied with the availability of textbooks that were out there for my course. I teach a first year course on geospatial data and technologies that asks questions like–how do mobile phones, social media, web-based mapping influence our daily lives and shape society?
There’s no textbook that covers this material. Instead, I’m forced to use a peripheral textbook and charge students $120 while struggling to use 50% of it. That does not feel good as an instructor.
That has been the biggest problem. This course has really grown over time from 25 students in 2012 to 117 students in 2015. It’s really attracting a lot of people, but we’ve always suffered with not feeling good about what we’re getting students to read and pay for.
Nothing beats experiential learning
Q: How has the teaching experience changed since using your custom authored Interactive Text?
Professor Bone: Well for one, students tell me that now they feel like they’re getting a resource that’s highly applicable to the course. I’m not struggling to relate certain chapters to my lectures. Everything is explicitly related, which is really huge. That’s been one of the big things.
The other big thing is that a lot of what I’m trying to teach students is now learned experientially, when students interact with the web-based maps embedded in the Interactive Text.
Rather than looking at an image of the Earth and being told what latitude/longitude is, students now login to their Top Hat Interactive Text, read that week’s chapter, scroll down to a web-based map, navigate the map with their mouse and see the coordinates change.
Now my students experience concepts instead of looking at them on paper and trying to imagine them it in their minds.
Interactive Texts reveal hidden teaching moments
Q: How has your pedagogy changed in the absence of this frustration?
Professor Bone: Since switching to an interactive text, my co-instructors and I found interactive questions to be useful in two ways. First, to monitor if students are completing the readings, and second, to gain insight into their comprehension of each week’s material before lecture starts.
Then during class, we revisit questions that were completed before class, correct misconceptions, or just see where students are. If the majority of students are going down a certain learning path, we can take them further because we know a lot more about how students are interpreting the content.
That allows us, in lecture, to focus on those perceptions and discover new teaching moments by saying, “Here’s what the majority of you said was really important here. Let’s take this a step further now.” We have never been able to do that before.
Students engaged with Interactive Texts delight in learning
Q: So in these new found teaching moments, how does the class respond?
Professor Bone: They’ve responded very well. One of the really positive comments that students have given me is that they feel like the Top Hat Interactive Text is much more useful than the traditional print textbook because it encourages them to engage a lot more with readings.
Students are saying they feel a more immediate sense of learning responsibility with the interactive questions’ instant feedback. Then when those questions are taken up in lecture, students feel like a conversation that has already started [online] during the readings, is continuing face-to-face in lecture.
Q: So you’re changing how students learn to learn in a tangible way, that must be exciting for you as an educator.
Professor Bone: It’s very satisfying. Satisfying would be the keyword.
Q: Having taught one full course using the Interactive Text, how has your relationship with students changed?
Professor Bone: The main way the relationship has changed is in the classroom. I feel like I’m able to have conversations with students during lecture now. Even in a classroom of 117 people, I spark more conversations than ever because Top Hat Interactive Texts create a unique classroom environment.
It’s not just me talking away and students taking notes, struggling to focus and pay attention. Instead, the majority are now more engaged in the material, and lecture has become a personal communication between myself and my students.
It’s made students feel more comfortable to speak out and ask questions in lecture rather than stressing out about providing the ‘right answer’ or ‘good idea’ because learning is seen as more of a conversation. Top Hat Interactive Texts take away the stuffiness of the lecture.
Authoring customized course content fosters confidence in teaching
Q: What is is the biggest impact that Top Hat Interactive Texts have had on your teaching and pedagogy?
Professor Bone: Using Interactive Texts gives me more confidence and pride in what I’m teaching students. This goes back to that funny feeling of charging students $120 bucks for a textbook that we might not fully use.
The university–and I don’t mean just my university but the university as a model of education–forces professors to have reading materials. And, typically, it mandates that those materials be in the form of some comprehensive curriculum that’s not just a piecemeal of different things–especially at the first year level.
This is a problem because professors like me must then go into this search for a holy grail of textbooks, hoping to find one perfect for their course. For some conventional disciplines that search bears fruit, and for others it doesn’t.
Top Hat Interactive Texts enable me to author my own text, have a greater sense of control over the entirety of my course, and allow me to do what I want to do, in a way that’s directly relevant to the class that I teach.
It’s the flexibility to develop my own text that really helps give me confidence in my teaching as well as a good a sense of pride that I’m providing students with materials that they are going to use.
Top Hat gives lets me make my course text more relevant than ever before.
Top Hat works with authors to create interactive learning experiences
Q: How has authoring with Top Hat been different from the working with the print publishing industry?
Professor Bone: I’ve had representatives from the biggest academic publishing houses out there come to my office to sell me ‘web-based online publishing,’ and then demo a web-based PDF. Once I showed them the first version of the Our Digital Earth Interactive Text complete with embedded web-maps and interactive questions, they just packed up and went home. That said a lot to me. I had a need for a robust mode to author and deliver content that they couldn’t provide. The way publishers do traditionally is just not useful.
Working with Top Hat could really be the future of publishing in a way. The process is much more flexible, there’s very little red tape, and as an author, I feel like my contributions are respected. Authoring with Top Hat doesn’t feel like being a small part in the publishing game, it’s been a relationship based on mutual respect, which for me, goes a long way.
Digital pedagogy, digital careers
Not only has ‘Our Digital World’ seen students succeed in the classroom, Chris’ students have experienced unexpected career success after graduation. Using the work and assignments completed in ‘Our Digital World’ as a digital portfolio, last summer the first of five of Chris’ former students went on to work in Apple’s mapping division2.
This summer, the Geography department is offering ‘Our Digital World’ as an online course for the first time, and Chris is teaching another class of up to 150 students this fall.
Top Hat’s Interactive Text authoring program is brand new, and professors like Christopher Bone are among the first wave of academics to grasp and leverage its flexibility and customizability. By integrating digital resources into their pedagogy, these professors are discovering how to craft captivating and effective learning experiences that students love.
Interactive Texts unify the out-of-class and in-class learning experiences by allow learning to start in a stress-free, equanimous digital space. Then the active digital dialog between students, course material and professor transitions seamlessly to face-to-face enthusiastic discussion during lecture. By Chris’ account lectures become less frustrating, more vibrant interactive learning forums.
It also gives professors like Chris the control to tailor a text to their curriculum, and to deliver students the most academic value for the lowest cost.
The actionable learning feedback Top Hat Interactive Texts provides about the status of individual student comprehension, as well as an eagle-eye view of cumulative class performance, gives professors moment-by-moment insight into the in-class learning experience.
This new stream of powerful learning data, enables professors to make agile and timely pedagogical micro-adjustments informed by trends in class difficulties and to help their students love learning again.
- Strieder, John. “Map Quest.” Oregon Quarterly. University of Oregon, n.d. Web. 16 May 2016.
- Cooper, Matt. “Enter Destination: Apple.” Cascade University of Oregon College of Arts and Sciences. University of Oregon, n.d. Web. 16 May 2016.
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