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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University February 9, 2004 | Vol. 33 No. 21
High-Tech Tools for Old-Time Subjects

History professor Ron Walters works with Mike Reese of the Center for Educational Resources on a digital interactive map for his History of the American West class.

CER helps profs make innovative changes in curriculum

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

Students in Ron Walters' History of the American West course this semester will journey with Lewis and Clark, observe harsh desert regions and roam a frontier with the likes of Daniel Boone, just to name a few. They may not be clicking their spurs while exploring these topics, but they will be clicking mouses.

In a course traditionally focused on text readings, lectures and research papers, Walters has sprinkled in a generous amount of classroom technology to help transport his students back to the age of the stagecoach and the gold rush.

Walters is just one Johns Hopkins faculty member who is taking advantage of the services of the Center for Educational Resources, whose mission is to partner with faculty to extend their instructional impact by connecting digital technologies and innovative teaching strategies.

CER staff collaborate with and assist faculty on a growing numbers of projects through the Arthur Vining Davis Foundation, Technology Fellowship and Howard Hughes grant programs. The center, founded in 2001 and located in the Garrett Room of Homewood's MSE Library, is jointly sponsored by the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, the Sheridan Libraries and Hopkins Information Technology Services. It primarily services faculty in the Krieger School, but through the Technology Fellows Program, faculty from the Whiting School and the Peabody Conservatory have worked with center staff in the past, and plans are under way to expand the reach of the center and make its staff and resources available to other university divisions.

In Walters' class, students and professor will utilize a Geographic Information System, an interactive digital map that will allow them to view the Lewis and Clark trail, see where and how railroads got built and get a sense of the density of population in particular areas. The map, displayed on either a computer or projection screen, is linked to a database so that through simple points and clicks a user can peel away layers of topography, zoom in on a particular frontier town or display just a region's rivers and lakes.

In addition to the GIS map, Walters will expose students in his History of the American West class to a wealth of multimedia resources available through WebCT, including images of period dress, film clips of Western movies and audio clips of frontier songs. Students also will be encouraged to incorporate audio and visual materials into their final portfolios, some of which Walters expects will become resources for future classes.

Walters, a professor of history, says that the use of technology allows him to present more effectively information that used to come in the form of handouts.

"For this class I can share the geography of the East and West coasts in a way I couldn't before," Walters says. "I have talked to some students here who have never been west; they have no idea. They can find the West Coast, of course, but don't have a sense of the topography. Using all this technology enables me to encourage students to do some of their own thinking about these materials and play with the data, rather than getting the data strictly from me."

The enhancements of Walters' class were made possible in part from a grant by the Arthur Vining Davis Foundation, which is underwriting CER efforts to develop Web-based resources to enhance students' critical thinking skills in the humanities. The grant money supports the development of new digital tools intended to help students analyze more effectively, write more clearly and take full advantage of library resources.

The grant already had helped spawn technologic enhancement to Introduction to Art History I and II, Introduction to Fiction and Poetry I and II and, more recently, Great Books: The Western Tradition.

The Center for Educational Resources also administers the Technology Fellowship Program, which is a minigrant initiative to help Hopkins faculty develop digital course resources by combining their instructional expertise with the technology skills of students. The focus of this program is to create instructional resources that support undergraduate education. Faculty and students develop proposals together to integrate technology into instructional projects that will enhance pedagogy, encourage active learning and promote critical thinking or collaboration among students.

Student fellows receive $4,000 for project implementation, and their faculty partners receive $1,000 for project design and oversight. The program is available to faculty and students at Peabody, SAIS and the schools of Arts and Sciences, Engineering, Nursing, Medicine and Public Health.

To date, the program has spawned an Italian language drill program, a robotic simulator for beginners and an interactive U.S. highway, among dozens of other projects.

CER also has been the recipient of grant money from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which is funding a project to enhance the introductory biology course, including the implementation of technology to allow real-time, individual student input in a large lecture setting.

One portion of the project was a Classroom Performance System that is now in four rooms on the Homewood campus. Like TV game shows that poll an audience, the system can poll students on multiple-choice questions. Each student purchases a "clicker" that allows him or her to select an answer in response to the faculty member's question. The results of the poll are shown on screens so the instructor can get instant, accurate feedback. The faculty also can grade the students on the quiz, as each clicker has a unique signature so the administrator can see who picked what answer.

Bruce Barnett, a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, has used the technology in his Physics 101 and 102 courses — typically classes with rosters of upward of 80 students.

"I think it works really well. Students say they like using this technology a lot more than pop quizzes," Barnett says. "I can get a good sense of whether or not students are keeping up with the material. If a sizable number of students get an answer wrong, I know I have to go over the concept again."

Mike Reese, assistant director of CER and a senior information technology specialist, says that the success of the center is tied into the "brave" professors who first integrate technology into their classrooms, often inspiring others to follow suit.

"There is a term we use here called 'early adopters,' faculty who are really looking to use this stuff. It seems all you have to do is expose them to technology, and they turn onto it, people like Ron Walters who are jumping on the bandwagon," Reese says. "I think what we are beginning to see with all of our projects is that when we go in and work with a department or faculty member and make a change in the way a course is taught, we see those changes are replicating with other courses within the department."

Reese gave the example of the digital image database that was first employed in the Introduction to Art History course. Since its implementation, several other classes in both the History of Art and History departments have incorporated a digital image database.

Candice Dalrymple, associate dean of the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences and CER director, says that later this year she will approach other university divisions and offer the opportunity for them to "buy in" to the center's work at some level.

"We are right now trying to develop a series of options so that leaders of other academic divisions, if they are interested, can take advantage of our staff and resources on a minipartnership basis," Dalrymple says. "I really think there are a wealth of opportunities out there to incorporate technology into classrooms and have faculty collaborate with each other on ways to enhance the learning process."

Daniel Weiss, Krieger School dean, says that the center's progress has been a very positive development for Johns Hopkins.

"CER has been a wonderful addition to our campus," Weiss says. "The synergies of teachers using new technology [and] the opening of Hodson Hall have only reaffirmed our commitment to providing resources that promote innovate teaching."


Technology Fellowships

The Technology Fellowship Program, a minigrant initiative to help develop digital course resources, is open to faculty and students from Peabody, SAIS and the schools of Arts and Sciences, Engineering, Nursing, Medicine and Public Health. The deadline for program applications is midnight on March 5. For more information, and a complete list of past projects, go to or contact Cheryl Wagner at 410-516-7181.


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