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Evaluating New Technology

Posted on May 23, 2017 by  in Blog

Professor and Senior Associate Dean, Rochester Institute of Technology

As a STEM practitioner and evaluator, I have had many opportunities to assess new and existing courses, workshops, and programs. But there are often requests that still challenge me, especially evaluating new technology. The problem lies in clarifying the role of new technology, and focusing the evaluation on the proper questions.

Well, ok, you ask, “what are the roles I need to focus on?” In a nutshell, new technologies rear their heads in two ways:

(1) As content to be learned in the instructional program and,

(2) As a delivery mechanism for the instruction.

These are often at odds with each other, and sometimes overlap in unusual ways. For example, a course on “getting along at work” could be delivered via an iPad. A client could suggest that we should “evaluate the iPads, too.” In this context, an evaluation of the iPad should be limited to its contribution to achieving the program outcomes. Among other questions, did it function in a way that students enjoyed (or didn’t hate) and in a way that contributed to (or didn’t interfere with) learning. In a self-paced program, the iPad might be the primary vehicle for content delivery. However, using FaceTime or Skype via an iPad only requires the system to be a communication device – it will provide little more than a replacement of other technologies. In both cases, evaluation questions would center on the impact of the iPad on the learning process. Note that this is no more of a “critical” question than “did the students enjoy (or not hate) the snacks provided to them.” Interesting, but only as a supporting process.

Alternatively, a classroom program could be devoted to “learning the iPad.” In this case, the iPad has become “subject matter” that is to be learned through the process of human classroom interaction. In this case, how much they learned about the iPad is the whole point of the program! Ironically, a student could learn things about the iPad (through pictures, simulations, or through watching demonstrations) without actually using an iPad! But remember, it is not only an enabling contributor to the program – it can be the object of study.

So, the evaluation of new technology means that the evaluator must determine which aspect of new technology is being evaluated: technology as a process for delivering instruction, or as a subject of study. And a specific, somewhat circular case exists as well: Learning about an iPad through training delivered on an iPad. In this case, we would try to generate evaluation questions that allow us to address iPads both as delivery tools and iPads as skills to be learned.

While this may now seem straightforward as you read about it, remember that it is not straightforward to clients who are making an evaluation request. It might help to print this blog (or save a link) to help make clear these different, but sometimes interacting, uses of technology.