Technology, Learning, and Puppetry: Greg Moses's Engineering Physics Department Colloquium

Moses & lizard puppet--image credit: Wisconsin Engineer It's not unusual for speakers at the weekly Engineering Physics Department Colloquium to discuss particle kinematics, the neutron continuity equation, or even software engineering. However, a recent talk included a bit more pedagogy than usual - and a lot more puppetry.

In his presentation "Technology-Enhanced Learning - Puppetry at no extra charge," Professor of Engineering Physics Gregory Moses told the story of how computers have and will continue to aid learning in the College of Engineering.

Known to perhaps a majority of UW-Madison engineering students as the online lecturer from Computer Science 310: Problem Solving Using Computers, Moses has himself played a significant role in that story. With software engineer Mike Litzkow and a number of undergraduates, he developed eTEACH, a "Learning on Demand" platform for delivering video-recorded lectures online.

His February 12 talk began with a sampling of past eTEACH presentations that mixed the silly - Moses's famous lizard puppets discussing special mathematical functions and his daughters lecturing on neutron physics - with the serious - demonstrations of how to use eTEACH to create chemistry lab preparation materials, for instance.

But the emphasis of the presentation was not on one particular course or tool. Instead, Moses first gave an overview of when it makes sense to use technology-enhanced learning tools at all and then discussed how he goes about doing so. He concluded with an update on a college-wide online learning initiative.

According to Moses, there are three reasonable goals for technology-enhanced learning: to "provide access to learning that would not otherwise be available" (e.g., distance learning), to "provide learning at a lower cost," and - most importantly - to improve student learning. Regarding the second goal, Moses cautioned that cost savings are difficult to realize and that tools like eTEACH should not be viewed "as a cash cow."

"If you've got courses with enrollments of thousands, you can prove that there's an economy of scale there," he said.

In his own teaching, Moses has focused on the third goal. He believes that "to improve student learning, we must change student behavior," and so he uses technology to guide students as they practice their skills on problems of appropriate difficulty.

To motivate this strategy, he made an analogy to military fitness training. Just as the army doesn't send a new unit to an exercise yard and tell the soldiers to work out on their own, neither should professors expect students to design their own practice regimen - especially without any outside requirements.

"There is no 'optional.' People don't look at that stuff. They don't have time," he said.

Of course, the idea of having students work required problem sets in engineering courses is nothing new. The potential for technology-enhanced learning, Moses claimed, lies in getting real-time feedback on those problems to the students without the need for instructor intervention.

Moodle screenshot Moses believes new technologies being implemented in the College of Engineering will make realizing this and other benefits even easier. He described efforts to update the popular eCOW course management system using an open-source tool called Moodle (no relation), which can be customized according to an institution's needs. Building on the eCOW framework is critical, Moses added, because the system has "low barrier entry" (it's easy to use) and "high faculty acceptance" (many already do). Near-term eCOW upgrades include a login feature, roster support, and the "Moodle gradebook."

But Moses seems most excited about Moodle's flexibility. Most importantly, it can be taught the difference between, say, 3.14 and 3.14159.

"What we want is a system that knows about math," he said.

Such a system would pave the way for a STEM-friendly "quizzing cafe" where students could be graded for completing authentic online quizzes and homework; Learn@UW, the university's quizzing-tool-of-choice, reads numerical answers as character strings, so it can't recognize otherwise correct answers that aren't rounded quite right, and it can't give partial credit.

Support for math-enabled quizzing is especially important to Moses, who believes student learning is driven by assessment.

"You get what you grade," he said.

Paul Oliphant, Computer-Aided Engineering software manager and member of the UW-Madison Community of Educational Technology Support (ComETS), also supports Moodle's use in the college. He writes on the ComETS Web site, "Moodle allows us to drive our own destiny."

A question and answer period followed Moses's talk, and several audience members offered advice and critiques based on their own experience using technology for instruction and assessment.

The lizards could not be reached for comment.


Image Credit: The image of Greg Moses and his lizard puppet originally appeared here in the Spring 2006 edition of Wisconsin Engineer.

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For more information about the ideas in this series:

1) Moodle Content Management System (CMS).

Moodle's website gives a wide overview of the content management system - its features, versions, and development community as well as documentation and usage statistics. The Moodle wikipedia page offers a good higher-level overview of the features (in layman's terms), as well.

2) McMullin, Barrie. (2005). Putting the learning back into learning technology. In online volume Emerging Issues in the Practice of University Learning and Teaching.

McMullin's chapter, from the online volume Emerging Issues in the Practice of University Learning and Teaching, examines the reasons why we have yet to see a magic-bullet electronic device that has "revolutionized teaching," and offers a way forward that is based on the intersection of constructivist pedagogy and widely available web-based technologies. McMullin examines four examples of these technologies - the open source model, wikis, blogs, and moodles - for their potential as learning tools. He points out the features of these various models, explains their potential uses for learning, and ultimately concludes that these tools facilitate a certain kind of learning,knowledge construction, by teachers and students. McMullin's chapter does not go very deep into any one technology, but is a good initial resource for learning about the power of online learning, both in terms of learning theory and the classroom practicalities.