May 1997 // Vision
Using Technology Productivity Tools in Teaching:
One Professor's Odyssey
by James L. Morrison
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: James L. Morrison "Using Technology Productivity Tools in Teaching:
One Professor's Odyssey" The Technology Source, May 1997. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

A major purpose of The Technology Source is to describe how educators are integrating technology into their instruction and into their organizations. In the last issue, Jim Ptaszynski, my co-editor, discussed some of his experiences when he served as associate dean of the Babcock School of Business at Wake Forest. My route into integrating technology into instruction at the School of Education at UNC Chapel Hill constitutes quite a different odyssey.

Teaching Courses in Education Leadership, Early 1990s

In the early 1990s I began to integrate technology in my courses in the Educational Leadership program by using PowerPoint?Ç¬Æ to make introductory lesson presentations, and Word to conduct interactive group process sessions. For example, in a course I team-taught on educational management with a colleague, David Thomas, I used the Nominal Group Process (NGP) technique to focus discussion on the topics for which I was responsible. Having stated the topic questions (e.g., What are potential developments on the horizon that could affect the future of education?), I requested the students to write their responses on their notepads. After 5 to 10 minutes, I began a round robin, getting their responses to the question, and typing them, one at a time, on my laptop, which projected the comment on a screen via a projector, until all the students' responses were visible on a screen. One tenet of the NGP is that there be no discussion until all the nominations are available; the objective was to get all the nominations on the screen before any discussion began. I requested students to think about each nomination:

Did it bring to mind a point that they had not previously considered? Also, I asked them to preselect from their list so as to give me their best nomination for projection on the screen.

The technique is called nominal group because to this point students are acting primarily as individuals; they are only nominally a group. In our class, once all nominations were on the screen, we began a process of refining, combining, and editing the nominations. By using Word, and a projector, such editing was relatively easy, particularly when contrasted with using flip-charts and magic markers. After each class I would print the results of the discussion and distribute them at the beginning of the next class meeting. Thus using the PowerPoint presentation graphics program to introduce topics and using Word to facilitate class discussions jazzed up my classes. I frankly viewed the use of these tools as state of the art in instructional technique. We received outstanding student evaluations for the course.

Applying Futurist Ideas to Higher Education

For many years now, I have been a futurist, focusing on identifying signals of change in the macroenvironment and deriving their implications for education. In 1992, I founded, and continue to edit a futures publication, On the Horizon, which, as its title implies, contains articles on the future of work, the globalization of the economy, the impact of telecommunications on this economy, downsizing, reengineering, and the subsequent implications for educational leaders as they guide their schools into the future. It is clear that to be successful in the Knowledge Age, college graduates need to be not only knowledgeable in their field, but also technologically literate, and, additionally, able to use technology to continue updating their skills. In the 21st century, students may expect to have five or six different careers in their lifetime; they need to keep their portfolios and skills up to date if they want to remain viable economically. Therefore, it is important that students, particularly those preparing to become educational leaders, be technologically literate themselves in order to be on the cutting edge of the profession and in order to be able to lead their organizations in using technology to enhance productivity and learning.

I cannot recall the precipitating event, but one day it struck me that although my use of technology in my instruction was an introduction for my students, my efforts were only minimally enhancing the ability of my students to use technology. These were students preparing for careers as educational leaders, primarily in the public schools, as assistant principals, principals, members of the superintendent's staffs, and superintendents. It was vital that they not only had a conceptual understanding of using technology in the schools, but also that they were able to use this technology themselves, to be able to facilitate the integration of technology into the curriculums of their educational organizations.

Teaching the Course, Managing Educational Organizations, Fall 1994

I slowly began the transition from my exclusive use of technology in the classroom to my students' use of technology, by redesigning the course on educational management for fall 1994, to include this objective: "using technology as an aid to your work as a manager." David agreed to continue handling the majority of topics in the course (e.g., site-based management, TQM, staffing, budgeting, special populations) by inviting school leaders to discuss various aspects of school management; he also agreed to teach decision-memo writing and book reviews. My responsibility was to teach the strategic management portion of the course, which included the major course project; I also assumed responsibility for technology integration. We would both review students' work and mutually determine grades.

For my portion of the course, I assigned a strategic management text I was writing with two colleagues as a guide for students to use in their course project. Their project was to either work with practicing school administrators in developing a strategic plan or to simulate being on a team charged with planning a new school in Orange County (the county in which UNC-Chapel Hill resides). I set up a class listserv to facilitate communication between classes and required that all projects not only be written on disk, but also be presented in class at the conclusion of the semester.

To complete these assignments, students had to learn how to use e-mail, listservs and PowerPoint. I required that students join three lists where the main topic of discussion focused on the future of education. We started the projects at the beginning of the semester by focusing on an environmental scan where students sought articles or listserv postings that described signals of change in the external environment. Students were required to abstract two such articles or postings, add a section titled "implications for public education," and post their drafts to the class listserv. In class, I showed students how to download postings from e-mail and take out the paragraph markings at the end of each line by using the "replace all" function in Word, and how to format the manuscript and place it in a folder on their hard drive or, if in the computer lab, a floppy disk. These manuscripts were to be used as part of the external analysis portion of their projects.

Because written communication skills are important tools for educational leaders, I projected one draft abstract of each student on screen and focused class discussion on how the abstract could be better written. I assigned the other draft abstract to another student, to write a critique of the abstract. In order to reduce anxiety, I did not grade either draft abstracts or critiques. (The written project and the presentation of that project constituted 35% of their grade; decision-memos constituted 40%; and class participation constituted 25%.)

I specified that PowerPoint be used in their project presentation because the University has a site license for Microsoft?Ç¬Æ Office, thereby making Office a relatively inexpensive purchase. Moreover, since Office productivity tools are supported by UNC's Office of Instructional Technology (OIT) help desks and periodically scheduled training programs, students would be able to secure help in learning how to use these tools. Also, since our lab had only Macs at the time, and since many students had PCs at home, students could easily transfer data files from Macs to PCs and vice versa.

Course Outcomes from the Professors' Perspectives

At the beginning of the semester, no student had an e-mail address or had ever subscribed to a listserv, and only one student had ever used a presentation software program. By the end of the semester, students were competent in the use of these technologies; moreover, their course projects were really quite good. However, we felt the quality of their writing would benefit from revision and rewriting. We offered students the option to revise their written projects and decision-memos, holding out the possibility of an upgrade, as we agreed to reevaluate each revision. The UNC Graduate School Bulletin specifies that a "P" is the grade normally expected of graduate students; an "H" may be awarded for superior performance. We awarded "P"s on all but a few of the written papers initially submitted. The written work of every one of our students who received "P" underwent at least one revision, motivated, I suspect, because students were disappointed with receiving a "P", enough so that they were willing to revise and resubmit, a process that greatly improved their work, their knowledge, and, in some cases, their grades.

David and I thought that the course was highly successful.

Course Outcomes from the Students' Perspectives

The students' perspective was quite different from David's and mine. They did not evaluate it as a successful course; in fact, the mean student rating for this course was below the mean for ratings within the School of Education. Among their complaints: the emphasis on technology and on learning to use technology took away time that should have been devoted to how to manage schools.


How can we explain the anomaly of opposite evaluations where David and I thought that we had taught a successful course in which students demonstrated competencies they had not had previously and in which they produced very good work whereas students thought that the course was unsatisfactory?

One explanation is that we failed to get students to buy into our objectives that written and oral communication skills and that use of e-mail and presentation software were so important that they would be factors in their grades. Students were unaccustomed to so much emphasis on the quality of their written work. (One student informed me that she was training to become an administrator, not an English teacher.) Too, students seemed to take constructive critique of their written work and of their presentations as a personal affront.

Another explanation was that we did not realize or compensate for the fact that by incorporating the requirement that students use technology in their work, we had increased their class work load substantially. Their workloads ranged from 16 to 19 hours (in comparison to an average graduate school workload range of 9-12 hours). Students had not expected this class to take so much of their time and energy; they found learning to use e-mail, listservs, and presentation software an additional "burden." Moreover, they did not accept the premise that they needed to learn to use these technologies to be effective educational leaders.

Also, although we allowed three weeks for students to work exclusively on their projects, we did not formally meet in class during this time; my availability was limited to office hours and e-mail. In addition, although we discussed problems students were having with using e-mail and listservs, I did not offer in-class training in the use of PowerPoint, so that students had to learn PowerPoint on their own or in the training sessions offered by OIT. Fortunately, the director of the School's Learning Technology Center and her assistant volunteered to help them prepare their oral presentations; the OIT training sessions always seemed to be offered at times that conflicted with their other classes.

Lessons Learned

I learned several lessons from this experience. I should have been more aware of how greatly our students were accustomed to, and therefore dependent on, a tightly structured learning experience. For the students, using the desktop published text as their guide to developing their projects without the benefit of lectures created uncertainty; and PowerPoint learning "on their own" also represented lack of guidance from the professor. What we had thought of as a opportunity for the students turned out to be unacceptable to them. A more closely supervised introduction, at least as a transition to the lesser structured environment I deemed appropriate for them, was and is a must.

Key to the whole experience is the question of how to break the dependence chain students have learned to accept and expect; or, said more professorially, how to help them want to learn to break the chain themselves. As noted above, I had given them no guidance for their project other than leading an initial class discussion during which we developed the outline and structure for the written project. That is, using Word, I had projected an outline of the project, which we used as the basis of a discussion that resulted in modifications and elaborations, and which I then printed and distributed. I told them that they could e-mail me their questions or arrange an office visit if they wished to discuss their project. No one responded to this offer. Thus I provided students no assistance until after they had completed their written project and had made their presentation at the end of the semester. The critique/guidance I gave them at that point was more intense than they had expected (or had ever received), and they had only a week or so to revise their written projects (if they wanted to improve their grade, which was not guaranteed).

My foray into integrating technology in my instruction had been less than a resounding success. Yet I remained convinced that using technology in instruction was important. I also remained convinced that it was important to incorporate effective written and oral communication skills as course objectives, and that technology could assist us in realizing those goals.

In Part II of this odyssey I will describe how I rethought my approach to integrating technology in my instruction, and how inclusion of technology (and effective writing and presentation skills), now my badge of distinction (not quite honor, as yet), is beginning to serve as an invitation to students seeking to broaden their scope.

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