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Educational technology allows students to engage in courses in ways they could not before.

Educational technology at U of T is fast changing how students learn and teachers teach

Back in the day, students would go to the library to access study materials for their university courses and, in the process, compete with fellow students in terms of who gets there first. They had to sign out the books and documents, which often could not be removed from the premises.

Today, students simply turn on their computers to connect electronically to the classroom. In addition to that trip to the library, study materials can be  read on e-textbooks, with students noting down questions as they go along and, in real time, getting answers as well as participating in discussions with classmates in their textbook group.

"Think of it like a book group," says Prof. Susan McCahan, University of Toronto's Vice-Provost, Innovations in Undergraduate Education. She is the first to hold the newly created position, with the goal of developing innovative new approaches to the education of undergraduate students.

Prof. McCahan, also a faculty member in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, uses an e-text platform  in her class, which allows her to order and assign textbooks, articles, PDFs and other reading materials. Its data analytics automatically generate student groupings and social interaction threads, grades their level of engagement and encourages those who may need help to stay on track or move forward.

"Education technology has been increasing in capability," notes Prof. McCahan. "The industry in general has been both growing and diversifying."

And as U of T works to revolutionize how students learn and study, the number of apps, electronic platforms and high-tech devices being used in the university's classrooms has grown and diversified.

In the courses she teaches, Prof. McCahan uses about eight technologies, including lecture capture which allows students to review a lecture, an electronic grade book that allows students to check their grades any time, and an assignment submission system.

These systems, known collectively as "edtech," allow students to engage in courses in ways they could not before.

The apps, programs and learning technologies are typically accessed from a learning management system (LMS), which is the go-to platform for today's university student.

It houses information like class schedules, calendars, bulletin boards, students' instructional content, access to library resources and other documentation relevant to their education.

"You can see the list of courses you are enrolled in, specific to you," Prof. McCahan explains. "And in each of those, which are called 'course shells,' would be all kinds of material that the professor used to post on the bulletin board outside their office or to hand out in class. This includes announcements, assignment instructions, the syllabus and contact information for the instructor and so on."

Edtech helps students find many different pathways to learning that, she notes, "supports students where they are."

The data generated by the behaviours of the students using the technologies tracks things like when and how students are interacting with the learning tools, for example. How are they engaging with them? In which areas do they need help?

This, in turn, allows the university to better understand students' needs and to support them in their learning experience. "During class, I can ask questions and the students text me the answers," says Prof. McCahan. "I can show the histogram of answers in real time on the screen. They can also text questions during class and I answer those either live in class or after, on the discussion board."

For students too shy to ask or answer questions in front of a crowded auditorium of their peers, such a tool transforms how they participate in the class.

Technology also has changed traditional office hours. "I hold office hours at 9 at night," says Prof. McCahan, "in my office in the basement, in my jammies."


Produced by Globe Edge Content Studio. The Globe's editorial department was not involved.