Rotating the Classroom

June 17, 2013—As educators are incorporating more technology in the classroom, the Department of Linguistics is starting a two-year study to explore the use of online lectures and exercises in introductory survey courses.

The study, funded by a grant from the university’s Initiative on Technology-Enhanced Learning, will focus on Introduction to Linguistics (LING-001). According to Associate Professor Jeffrey Connor-Linton, the introductory linguistics course is the department’s largest enrolling course and serves three distinct populations at Georgetown: linguistics majors, foreign language majors, and general social science students. “It seemed like this [course] was where we could have the most impact. But given that it is an introductory survey course, whatever we developed would have the biggest chance at general [application],” said Connor-Linton, who also serves the College’s senior associate dean for faculty and strategic planning.

Introduction to Linguistics serves approximately 225 students each year, with six or seven sections in the fall and three in the spring. The course is taught by a team of faculty and doctoral students who have completed the department’s teaching practicum. By helping to redesign the course, these doctoral students have the opportunity to investigate what future classrooms may look like. “We’ve had some really interesting conversations about what this means for the university as a physical institution, and what this means for the business model of the university,” he continued.

The course will continue to meet three times a week. In addition to regularly assigned readings, students in some sections will watch two- to three-minute videos over the weekend. After each video lecture, students will complete exercises designed by department’s project team. Each exercise uses real data and leads students through a problem with “different levels of difficulty or support,” Connor-Linton explained. Eventually students are able to complete problems without any extra instruction from the computer software.

As students progress through the lectures and exercises, the computer software captures the students’ performance over the weekend. This information won’t be used for grades but to show professors the students’ comprehension of the material. “On Sunday night, the teacher can see how many clicks it took [students] to get through the exercises,” he said. “On Monday, you know what to re-teach or what went wrong.” This new system will free up an entire class period each week, allowing the linguistics faculty to develop more in-class activities for the course.

The linguistics department will also have the opportunity to explore ways to apply computer software to a broad course, which includes topics that do not always have one right answer. The department will start by restructuring the course material that is more conducive to right and wrong answers and therefore more easily assessed online. The team will then take the first year to decide how this software can be used in the classroom for topics where answers depend more on strong argumentation.

The linguistics department’s project will also serve as a two-year scientific study on using these tools in the classroom. During the study, the department will collect surveys from students, compare test scores and progress, and videotape classrooms to see how interaction between the students and professors changes. With two years of data, the department hopes to distribute their findings, a redesigned course structure, and software templates to other departments at Georgetown.

“We’re not interested in technology for technology’s sake, and we’re not interested in replacing teachers and classrooms. What we’re really interested in is finding that balance between the human and the technology.”

—Elizabeth Wilson