Thirteen Ideas to Help Computerize Your Course

Whether you’re a computer neophyte or computer guru, you will find here ideas for some useful high-tech supplements to traditional education methods, and we hope to persuade you to explore further the many facets of computer-aided instruction. As a starting point for your own investigations into hardware/software advances and even cyberspace itself, the accompanying table provides examples of currently available software useful in teaching.

In the meantime, below is a brief description of 13 applications of computers to facilitate teaching of psychology. In 13 easy steps you can wean yourself from the shame of teaching without computers or update your computer utilization. While some steps sound complicated, most are rather simple, especially since more sophisticated equipment and software are becoming increasingly available and at decreasing prices.

Keep in mind, too, that as a member of an educational institution you, your students, or your department often will qualify for substantial discounts on software and equipment. For example, very sophisticated computer programs with retail prices in the hundreds or even thousands of dollars are sometimes available in “student versions,” allowing students to learn on software that, while often not full-featured versions, is sufficient to enhance student training significantly.

Thirteen Steps to Computerization

1. Teach your students how to use computers. Of course, it’s not the job of most psychologists to teach computer courses, but there are very good reasons to teach general and specific computing skills within psychology courses. Let’s face it, not all your psychology majors are going to carve out a career in brain chemistry or group dynamics. Those that acquire sophisticated computer skills will be more competitive for jobs in the real world. Those that pursue careers in psychology will benefit particularly from detailed understanding of computers and their operation as well as computer programming at system level through higher-level languages.

2. Digitize your textual materials. Recording your course materials on electronic media probably has the greatest cost-benefit ratio of any effort to add to or enhance the computerization of your teaching. Once in computer memory, materials can be modified easily for use in a wide variety of applications. Naturally, you can write examinations with a word processor and easily produce alternate forms of an exam.

3. Put your gradebook into an electronic gradebook or spreadsheet. Although useful gradebook programs are available, we’ve found that general-purpose spreadsheets are fine, and, in some ways, preferable to specialized gradebook software. Any decent spreadsheet has the capacity and flexibility to handle even the most unusual grading scheme, and the results can be easily exported to other applications, such as word-processors. For the less adventuresome, specialized grade books are still a large improvement over paper-based records. In either case, electronic gradebooks and spreadsheets save you from repetitive calculations and are much more malleable than more traditional gradebooks.

You can almost completely automate the testing process if your institution has an optical scanning system that can produces ASCII text (i.e., plain alphanumeric characters devoid of special codes for features such as bold, italic, indent, tab). Have the ASCII file e-mail to you. You can then import the file into your gradebook/spreadsheet file. This that is very useful for large survey-type courses.

4. Digitize your analog materials. With the advent of computerized delivery systems such as the Internet now is a great time to start digitizing your overhead transparencies, sound clips, and video clips. It only takes about a minute to convert an image to electronic form, and digitized materials are easy to incorporate into documents or computerized presentations, using presentation software (see next item in this list).

5. Present traditional lecture materials. Several varieties of presentation software can help you organize and di splay notes and graphics on a projector screen. This is a great application of your newly digitized materials; and easily created animations can help engage students’ interest. Computer-aided presentations help give a professional touch to your lectures. In order to show a computer display to a large class, you will need to connect your classroom computer to a projection system. This is accomplished with a projection plate that is placed over a high-intensity overhead projector.

6. Teach statistics. Want a novel way to show students how to calculate a standard deviation? Want an in-class method to empirically estimate the distance between the fovea and one’s visual blind spot? There is nothing like a projected spreadsheet or statistical program to eliminate chalkboard calculations. Menu-driven statistics programs are also much easier for students to use than more traditional command-line systems, allowing students more time to appreciate the concepts underlying statistics (or, so we hope).

7. Simulate psychological processes or phenomena. Why just talk about neural networks or conditioning? Instead, show your students the real thing, or at least show them a reasonable approximation. There may be nothing so useful as a hands-on exercise in which students train a “virtual rat,” or process an image with a visual neural network. Some programs even allow students to generate hypothetical experimental designs and corresponding, stochastic data sets, allowing students to focus more on the analysis and interpretation of data than on the execution of experiments.

8. Use multimedia as tutorials. There are some multimedia (i.e., two or more types of media, such as text and pictures) titles that provide short sound clips and video clips as well as animations, and text, often in an interactive environment. These are distributed on diskettes, CD-ROM, the Internet, and laser disk. Lecturing about psychopathology? Why not show a video clip of Charles Manson and let students work their way through a binary decision tree to arrive at a DSM-IV diagnosis? Multimedia is a great supplement to in-class content that may help clarity difficult concepts.

9. Conduct experiments or demonstrations. Experiment control programs generally present pictures, sounds, or video clips to subjects and allow the collection of various types of responses from subjects. There are even control files for the general-purpose experimental control programs or special-purpose programs that are preconfigured to conduct classic psychology experiments.

10. Use the Internet as a resource. Here is just a sampling of teaching-related Internet-based information: Online card catalogs show the holdings of the Library of Congress and various university’s libraries. Ever-evolving conversations about the teaching of psychology are available for participation by subscribing to the Teaching in Psychology listserv (i.e., listserv@fre.fsu.umd.edu). Online tutorials are available for a variety of software. Remote participation in experiments is possible through several departmental web pages (e.g.,  http://www.ithaca.edu/hslpsych/pscyh/ ). UseNet newsgroups provide innumerable opportunities to engage you in conversation in your special interest areas, provided that your computer server provides news feeds from UseNet. Want to get in on some continually evolving conversations about Jungian analysis? Then, subscribe to the appropriate UseNet newsgroup (e.g., alt.psychology.jung) and read on! Several departmental web pages (e.g., http://www.ithaca.edu/hs/psych/psych1) are viewable through a web browser program (e.g., Mosaic, NetScape). Dozens of such departmental pages are accessible through the APS web site at http://www.hanover.edulpsych/APS.

11. Use the Internet as a delivery mechanism. The web can deliver anything that is in digital form, from pictures to experimental programs to administrative materials. Remember the course materials you just digitized? You can provide access to them through the web. If you want to put your materials on the web, it is primarily a matter of formatting the layout of your documents by embedding HTML (HyperText Markup Language) tags in an ASCII file. This task has been made trivial with the advent of WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) web authoring programs, which require no knowledge of HTML. Once the files have been created, they need to be placed on a networked computer with web server software. Web-based materials provide the basis for an aesthetically appealing, paperless system that is accessible virtually anytime and anywhere.

12. Use the Internet as a communication device. You can make yourself more accessible to your students. Electronic mail, listservs, and UseNet news groups help break down barriers to communication between faculty and students, providing a nearly fool-proof conduit between the two. It provides for “24-hour” office hours, so that students can get information from (e.g., class notes, reading assignments, data) and post information to (e.g., completed quizzes or exams, reports, summaries of literature) a centralized information center. Electronic services can also help break down barriers between students. For example, they can share information among themselves, such as notes, data sets, or other collaborative works-in- progress. These e-mail based services have already been successfully utilized in courses that ask students to offer observations or reactions on even the most sensitive topics. It is often argued that some students who are reticent to speak in a classroom are more likely to express themselves in these electronic forums.

13. Create new resources. In addition to the wealth of materials that reside in publishing houses or on the net, you can always make a significant contribution by adding your own content. At the least, adding content could mean that you could use a graphics program to illustrate some principle or concept, such as classical conditioning. Or, if you are a little more enterprising, you might write a program to emulate your favorite psychological process or phenomenon. Want to illustrate the effect of presbycusis on speech perception? Use a sound processing program to filter a digitized speech sample. It is also relatively easy to learn to use multimedia authoring software (i.e., programs for creating multimedia documents), so that you can quickly produce multimedia presentations on any topic.

These are just a few suggestions for computerizing your curriculum. If you want to follow-up, we strongly suggest that you contact your local academic computing center. Staff there should have display models of hardware and software or at least some helpful advice. I f you lack an Internet connection, contact local, regional, or national Internet service providers and ask for their services and rates.

References and Further Reading:

Kehoe, B.P. (1993). Zell and the art of the Internet: A beginner's guide. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Kelley-Milburn, D., & Milburn. M.A. (1995). CYBERPSYCH: Resources for Psychologists on the Internet.

Psychological Science, 6, 203-211.

Ralston, J.V., Cronin. J. & Seltzer, L. (1996). Applying the World Wide Web to Education. Submitted to

Teaching of Psychology.

Issue 2 of Volume 25 of Behavior Research Methods. instruments & Computers (1993) contains several

articles on computer technology for psychological instruction and science.

The journal Teaching of Psychology publishes regular articles on computer use in teaching.

COMPSYCH (http://www.plattsburg.edu/compsych/) is a web site containing extensive listings and

reviews of psychology-related software.

Observer Vol.9, No.6 November, 1996

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