Q&A: How Technology Has Changed Teaching at Duke

Randy consults with faculty in the Social Sciences on pedagogy, learning, student assessment, and integrating technology into teaching practices.
Randy consults with faculty in the Social Sciences on pedagogy, learning, student assessment, and integrating technology into teaching practices.

Randy Riddle in Duke’s Center for Instructional Technology helps faculty explore new ways of teaching and assessing and improving student learning.

He spoke to Duke Today about ways technology has changed teaching at Duke.

Are there particular academic fields most disrupted by changes in teaching technology?



Randy Riddle consults with faculty in the Social Sciences on pedagogy, learning, student assessment, and integrating technology into teaching practices.

Randy Riddle consults with faculty in the Social Sciences on pedagogy, learning, student assessment, and integrating technology into teaching practices.



I can’t really think of an academic discipline that hasn’t been touched by changes in technology in one way or another.

The growth of the Web and open archival materials or educational resources have influenced what faculty can do with students in the classroom. There are many more options for students to engage in “real world” research and inquiry in a class, sometimes with material or data that’s been uploaded to the Web and hasn’t really been looked at in depth before. Faculty have many more options for using tools on their laptop or mobile device for video and digital imaging, 3D, or text and data analysis.

The changes you see in the classroom, with new activities and class assignments and ways for students to engage in the content and practice of the discipline, mirror the way that the disciplines themselves have been impacted by personal computers, the Web and mobile devices over the past two decades.

How difficult is it for a scholar to keep up with changing teaching technology at Duke? Do people in your field talk about the world in Before Internet/After Internet terms?

It can be difficult because researchers and scholars often specialize. There just aren’t enough hours in the day to learn different advanced digital tools. That’s why interdisciplinary work and partnerships are important. Faculty are learning about tools or hardware as part of their specialized work, but draw on the experience and knowledge of other specialists to use or integrate other software and hardware or expand approaches to their research.

What’s getting easier are some of the tools used to manage the class itself -- grading, online discussions, file sharing and other areas. Faculty might not find out about them or explore them unless they’re having a particular logistical issue in a class or happen to see a colleague using it. So, one of the key things the Center for Instructional Technology does is promote tools that faculty might find useful for the nuts and bolts of teaching their courses. And we talk with faculty to find out what kind of tools they’re using in their course that their colleagues might want to use.



Steve Taylor, MD, Assistant Professor Medicine and Assistant Research Professor of Global Health, films a video for a course called Infectious Disease Epidemiology in Global Settings. The course was the first fully online graduate-level course offered by the the Duke Global Health Institute.

Steve Taylor, MD, Assistant Professor Medicine and Assistant Research Professor of Global Health, films a video for a course called Infectious Disease Epidemiology in Global Settings. The course was the first fully online graduate-level course offered by the the Duke Global Health Institute.



I’ve been working in the field of instructional technology and academia since the mid-1990s, even before the Web. Technology has been a part of classrooms for many decades, long before the Internet or even personal computers. Faculty used to show 16mm films and filmstrips or use recordings in class. Now, we have YouTube and podcasts and faculty can easily create audio, video and images right on their own laptop or mobile device.

When I was in college getting my degree in history in the early ’80s, we used index cards to take notes on reels of microfilm from the Library of Congress in one of our classes. Now, we might use some online note-taking and database tools and use digital files that an archive has put online for anyone to access.

The faculty member might even be collaborating with faculty at other universities as part of a big project examining a large collection of documents. Or they might talk with computer scientists or specialists in other fields to analyze and visualize data from the documents with the students in the class.

Rather than think of teaching technology in terms of before or after the Internet or personal computer, I like to think it’s been a steady progression in terms of the sophistication, speed, and lower cost of the technology tools combined with advances in networking and communications that connect the tools --- and the faculty and students -- in more innovative ways.

What is a good example of a class made significantly better by a change in teaching technology?

A simple example would be a course that gets bogged down by students looking for help on homework or answers about topics they don’t understand. Many faculty at Duke use a tool in our Learning Management System called Piazza -- it’s an online question-and-answer tool for students to help each other and for the faculty member and teaching assistants to give feedback. It’s simple, but can save the faculty member a great deal of time.