Havlick bridges gap between classroom and outside world with technology

May 4, 2011
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Editor’s Note: This is the seventh in a series of occasional features provided by the UCCS Teaching and Learning Center to encourage faculty to share ideas about teaching strategies that engage students and enhance learning. Faculty members are encouraged to share their ideas by contacting the TLC at 255-4872 or tlc@uccs.edu. Free coffee vouchers are available to get the discussion started.

Q – Tell me about yourself.  What is your name and department, and how long have you been working at UCCS? Also, could you tell us a little about your teaching style?

A – My name is David Havlick and I am a assistant professor of Geography and Environmental Studies. I also direct the minor in Sustainable Development. I started full-time at UCCS fall of 2007 (this is my 4th year).

Havlick and students of his sustainability class build a water garden outside of Ulrich House.

Havlick and students of his sustainability class build a water garden outside of Ulrich House.

My teaching hinges upon curiosity. I remain intensely interested and curious about the world around me – how its people and environments interact; how we can do better to live more sustainably than we have so far managed; and how politics, values, science, and technology can work to effect positive change or be mobilized against it. Teaching courses in geography and environmental studies presses me to keep myself open to new ideas, new modes of inquiry, and to tap into insights produced from an array of fields. I consciously seek to share these ideas with my students, to inspire in them a sense of curiosity so they, in turn, can challenge and teach me.

One of my main interests in teaching is not only to convey information effectively and challenge students to confront ideas critically, but also to engage students in real-world applications that will highlight the significant connections between what happens in the classroom and what happens outside of class. A core element of my teaching philosophy is that student learning needs to remain a fundamental objective. It may seem obvious that to be an effective teacher one must connect the act of teaching with the process of student learning, but I find that it requires active reflection and planning to ensure that happens.

Q – How do you use technology in your teaching? How does it fit into your teaching philosophy?

A – I try to use technology selectively and in different combinations. I use Blackboard in a number of ways, from posting reading selections to setting up student groups that can use the many communication tools that come with Blackboard (wikis, chat, email, blogs, etc.). I often ask students to post reading responses in advance of class using Blackboard’s blog or discussion thread tool, then I can get a sense ahead of time how students are engaging with readings. I typically reach into those blog postings and other students’ comments to them in class as a way to burrow into points from the readings and draw students into more active class discussions. It can also help maintain a backchannel of discussion about the readings even if we don’t have time to discuss every single article during class time.

I’ve just started using iclickers in my World Regional Geography course this spring semester as a means to generate more interactivity in a medium-sized course (about 45 students). It seems to work well for review questions in class, and stirs students to life when they have to commit to a response then immediately see how other students responded. It’s actually gotten to a point where students will bring ideas to me about how we could utilize the clickers in new ways in class. So I like that it’s engaging them in the content of the course material, as well as the pedagogy of the class.

All that said, I also try to make a concerted effort at times in every class to simply turn off the projector and engage students directly, and press them to connect with each other in small groups and activities. I remain skeptical of technology in the classroom in some respects – it can be a distraction if used thoughtlessly – and I generally view student laptops as a liability. I think we’ve all seen mind-numbing Powerpoint presentations, and so there’s always that trap.

Q – You mentioned Blackboard, tell us a little more about how you use it to help you and your students.

A – Blackboard has been a great asset in setting up student groups of 3-4, then setting them onto an assignment. Blackboard allows them to communicate pretty easily in multiple forms without necessarily having to mesh complicated schedules and personal lives. I don’t love the Blackboard gradebook, but do use it and the dropbox feature to streamline assignments and grading when I can.

Q –  What are iclickers and how do you use the technology in the classroom?

A – iclickers are essentially handheld transmitters that allow students to communicate responses to multiple choice questions in class. You can post a set of questions, have students click in their responses, then show a display of the distribution of the results, highlight correct answers, or springboard from the exercise into a discussion of the topics queried. I use them for in-class reviews of course material, but also to highlight the subjectivity and complexity of some issues. If I post a set of multiple choice questions for which there’s no clear right or wrong response, then it can create a nice dynamic to pull students into a discussion about how we make sense of complex situations or divergent values. I can also use the clickers to poll the class on their preferences or views in some cases where that’s appropriate – anonymously if need be.

Q – Did the use of technology in the classroom change how you teach or feel about teaching?

A – Some technologies, such as the clickers, press me to get away from lecture and integrate other forms of interaction in class. It can take extra work and planning and course time to accommodate that, but ultimately I think it benefits the students’ learning and creates a more interesting classroom environment. I tend to look forward to “clicker days,” maybe in part because the devices still seems kind of novel, but also because it’s clear that many students look forward to using them as well and we can get into a deeper consideration of some topics using their prompts.

Q – Would you recommend the use of Blackboard and iclickers to your colleagues? What tips would you offer?

A – I think either can be an asset or a curse. You’ve got to be strategic about how much and where to rely upon them. It takes some time to incorporate these tools into one’s teaching and they’re clearly not the only ways to engage students or advance learning. I appreciate the flexibility these bring to my teaching and the way they can expand my ability to communicate with students. I’m a long way from saying they’re essential tools, but sure, I’d recommend them selectively. I don’t think good teaching requires technology – some of my most effective courses have been those I’ve taught in wildland settings with nothing more elaborate than pen, paper, and books – but it’s worth exploring new ways of engaging students and some of these technologies facilitate that.

– Sharon Stevens

– Photo by Philip Denman

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