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Talk About Teaching and Learning

In the two accounts that follow, Dr. Christina Frei and Dr. David Rousseau illustrate two ways instructional technologies can be used to solve a common teaching problem: how to facilitate active learning by students. The respective strategies employed by Dr. Frei and Dr. Rousseau are notable examples of how technologies like Blackboard, Wimba, and intercontinental video-conferencing can enhance the classroom experience of Penn students. In both cases, the instructional technology helped improve the face-to-face interaction between students and faculty that remains the lifeblood of a liberal arts education. Frei and Rousseau received funding from the School of Arts & Sciences to support the development of the technological applications described below. Funding for course related technological innovations is available from the SAS Instructional Technology Grants. More information can be found at

Using Instructional Technology to Facilitate
Active Learning

David Rousseau and Christina Frei, with John Noakes

A More Active Engagement in International Relations

As each semester winds to a close, I construct a list entitled "changes for next time," including ideas for new readings, assignments, and classroom exercises. Over the years, the list for my 200-student introductory international relations course routinely contained two items: increase emphasis on active learning and expand the breadth of viewpoints. No solution proved satisfactory, however, until I combined the power of technology with changes in course format. Technology is not a panacea for pedagogical problems, but it proved ideal for reducing two important barriers to learning in my course. 

The introductory course, which is required for all international relations majors, meets for two hours of lecture and one hour of recitation each week. In addition to a midterm and final exam, students write five persuasive essays on topics such as "Should the U.S. Deploy a Ballistic Missile Defense?"  

Although students occasionally asked substantive and clarification questions during lectures, the format encouraged "passive" learning. To begin changing this, I substituted student debates for three of the twenty-five lectures. During one term, a total of 56 students, working in teams of three to six, debated topics similar to those used for the written essays. To prepare for the debates they attended a general debate training session and participated in at least one practice debate under the supervision of the Communication Within the Curriculum (CWiC) program. Student evaluations of the course indicated that members of the audience and the debate participants viewed this format positively. 

Given that I still wanted to expose students to the material presented in the traditional lectures, my research assistant and I created "web modules" which included 1) the text of the original lecture, 2) a web-based video of an interview with an academic on the subject; 3) a survey probing class opinion on the topic, 4) a web-based multiple choice quiz; 5) optional essay questions, and 6) case studies designed to bring the theoretical topics to life. The survey and case studies were explicitly designed to foster discussion in the recitation.

To tackle the perennial problem of limited points of view, I exploited two recent technological advances. I have long assigned readings by authors with competing perspectives, but students often failed to work through the implications of these alternative viewpoints. My solution to this problem was to link my students to students in a foreign university. Students from Penn and Sophia University in Japan read common readings posted on a Blackboard site during two different weeks in the Spring of 2001. The students then wrote persuasive essays (in English) on a common topic and exchanged them with their foreign partners. In the following week, the students were required to comment on the essay produced by their partner. At the end of the semester, using the SAS Innovative Learning Space Classroom in 319 Towne, subsets of the Penn and Sophia students participated in a video-conference discussion of a third topic.

By using Blackboard and video-conferencing technology to help achieve my teaching goals, I was able to create a more active learning environment and expand the breadth of viewpoints to which my students were exposed.

--David Rousseau

Practicing Constructionism: The Homo.Cyber Project

"In constructionist learning, forming new relationships with knowledge is as important as forming new representations of knowledge. Constructionism also emphasizes diversity: It recognizes that learners can make connections with knowledge in many different ways. Constructionist learning environments encourage multiple learning styles and multiple representations of knowledge."1

How can we use instructional technology to encourage students to take active responsibility for their learning and the learning of others? Network-based language teaching, i.e. course management sites such as Blackboard, computer mediated communication in asynchronous (threaded discussion, e-mail, group pages, etc.) and synchronous (chat and Wimba voice board chats) modes encourage the incorporation of student-centered computer-assisted language learning and teaching into the classroom.

In my German courses, computer-assisted language learning allows students to practice language competencies with authentic cultural materials and, in some cases, to publish their compositions on specific web sites. For instance my students in a fifth-semester conversation and composition course (GRMN 215) use Blackboard to create a common course web site in connection with their readings of an authentic literary text (among others: Max Frisch's Homo Faber).

Working collaboratively, students create biographies and reviews of historical background and geography, analyze text, and construct exercises emphasizing integrated language competencies. Students then post their written work and images under Blackboard's group page function and communicate with each other about their assignment in the threaded discussion environment.  In addition, they create listening and reading exercises, compile essay and discussion questions, and generate vocabulary exercises using the freeware Hot Potatoes ( Finally, the web site is incorporated in the fourth-semester syllabus, where students use the peer generated information and exercises to help interpret an abridged version of the authentic literary text and as the basis of their in-class presentations.

Students take an active responsibility for their learning and the learning of others when given the opportunity to create meaningful materials for themselves and their peers. In the spirit of constructionist approaches to learning, these strategies make "multiple representations of knowledge" possible and position the learner as creator rather than as consumer of knowledge. When my students took authorship and ownership of their constructed knowledge (indeed, the students have the copyright of the web site they create) their motivation was deepened and they became more conscientious language creators and speakers. What is most rewarding to me as a teacher is the level of sophistication, interest and enthusiasm with which students create their material.  In particular, Hot Potatoes exercises show how students enjoy creating diverse formats such as crossword puzzles, multiple choice, true and false, and fill in the blank questions--infusing these  "usual suspects" of pedagogical tricks with their own readings, humor, and interpretation of the authentic text.

Should you have a moment, please visit the students' website at You are in for a treat!

--Christina Fre

1 Constructionism in Practice: Designing, Thinking, and Learning In a Digital World. Ed. Yasmin Kafai and Michael Resnick. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates: Mahwah, 1996.

Dr. Christina Frei is the Language Program Coordinator and Lecturer in the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures. 

Dr. David Rousseau is an Assistant Professor of Political Science.

Dr. John Noakes is Associate Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning and a Visiting Instructor in Sociology.

This essay resumes the series that began in the fall of 1994 as the joint creation of the College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching. See for the previous essays.



  Almanac, Vol. 50, No. 22, February 17, 2004