Teaching tools have gone from bulletin boards to mobile apps in just 10 years.
Janet Welch, director of Tech in Ed

Ed Tech: Taking teaching into the 21st century

An in-depth look at UAlberta’s innovative Tech in Ed, where students, professors and administrators come together to explore how tech can be used to teach.


(Edmonton) On the third floor of the Education North building you’ll find the hub of teaching technology at the University of Alberta.

The Technologies in Education: Support and Solutions (Tech in Ed) learning commons provides an interactive learning environment for students, faculty, instructors and staff in the Faculty of Education and across campus to develop their digital literacy in the areas of teaching, learning, research and administration.

“We look at new technologies that we see coming into the schools, and then test them to see how they can be used in administration, teaching and learning, and research,” said Janet Welch, assistant dean of education (academic technologies) and director of Tech in Ed. “Teaching tools have gone from bulletin boards to mobile apps in just 10 years.”

Tech in Ed is like a toy shop where students, faculty members and administrators can get their hands on the latest and greatest inventions and explore how tech can be used to teach. They have Google Glass, enhanced publications, sphero robots and even a 3-D printer. “It is a place where students can get some practical experience with technologies that they will surely encounter in the classroom,” Welch explains.

Students are welcome to attend Red Chair sessions offered throughout the school year. The free 30-minute sessions cover everything from Tackk and S’more to Animoto, Prezi, eBook tools and many more applications.


In addition to the on-site support and cool stuff, Tech in Ed has also compiled an extensive menu of self-serve training on polling and survey tools, social media, digital posters and many other new and emerging technologies. Facility with these tools and technological literacy are vital in today’s world, says Welch.

“In this line of work, you can be answering questions on the cutting edge in the morning and working to resolve problems from 10 years ago at the end of the day.”

On the frontiers of teaching at Peter Lougheed Leadership College

With a phalanx of experts behind her—including learning and course design experts, programmers and app developers, and a digital communications team—Welch is being pulled in many new directions, including over to the new Peter Lougheed Leadership College.

“The college approached me through my work on the Digital Learning Pilot Research and Development Committee, where we put together the U of A’s first MOOC,” says Welch. “My role is to bring all of the pieces together, applying the best technology to achieve their vision.”

Designing an interdisciplinary course of this magnitude is something new for Welch. “[Lougheed College founding principal] Kim Campbell reached out in January and said, ‘I have this idea, and it is pretty non-traditional. Can you help?’ It was too exciting a project to pass up.”

Normally a course has two or three contributors, but the Lougheed College course has 14 or 15. “The vision is to create an interdisciplinary teaching team, with 50/50 online and face-to-face delivery. We have contributors from across campus: people from arts, extension, engineering, law and others.” Although the design has been a complicated process, Welch notes that exploring the multiple perspectives will be a rich experience for the students. “It is phenomenal.”

Welch says her own educational background helps her bring multiple perspectives to the project her team tackles. “The work I do changes with the wind. I have a master’s degree in computing science and a doctorate in education; not very many people have that mix. There is a middle ground, a translation that has to happen between technology and teaching—that’s where we sit.”

Welch notes that in her field, curiosity and a willingness to learn are key, so that when people come to Welch and her team with an idea, like using virtual reality in rehabilitation medicine, they can run with it. “In units like ours, we don’t always have the answers immediately, but we certainly know what is going on in other universities and in the tech world, and we are creative and not afraid to try something new.”

Hands on in the classroom of the future

The experts in Tech in Ed also offer the innovative EDU 210 course (Introduction to Educational Technology), which is mandatory for all undergraduate education students. The course provides students with a set of skills they’ll need as new teachers, heading into classrooms where they’re likely to encounter unfamiliar technology, as well as products like Pinterest, screencasting apps and web design software that are getting more and more common in schools.

“We want students to use these technologies to achieve a pedagogical goal,” explains Welch. “The time and care that goes into designing this course, and the fact that it is mandatory, are a testament to the importance technology will play in the classrooms of the future.”

EDU 210 is also the birthplace of the faculty’s biannual Maker Day. The event showcases concepts of makerspaces, design thinking and project-based learning. Technologies on display at the most recent Maker Day this past March included robotics, video games, Ozobot, a drone, augmented reality, L’il Bits, and Google Glass.

Attendees left the event with a better understanding of how technology and education work together, and how that partnership can be integrated into the classroom.

But the class isn’t just about students knowing about technological tools. “It is a balance between content, technology and pedagogy,” says Welch. “We want them to be able to make good choices regarding which technology to use, and when.”

Grad students wade into virtual reality, video games and LEGO

Patricia Boechler, associate dean of research in the Faculty of Education, is making the technology of tomorrow come alive on the U of A campus today.

“The work we do in the field of educational technology reaches beyond our walls; it has become completely interdisciplinary,” she explains. As educational technology research has found applications across campus, the Technology and Learning Sciences Lab (TALS) in the Faculty of Education has become a hub of expertise on changes in how we learn and teach.

The students and professors in TALS have put their expertise to work in computing science, rehabilitation medicine, engineering and arts. This past year, Boechler used a virtual world to engage students in Music 102—Introduction to World Music.

In September 2014, students participated in a pilot project to incorporate virtual technology into a music class. “Listening is central in music,” says co-investigator Mary Ingraham, professor of musicology in the Department of Music. “We were finding that the classroom environment conspires against students when it comes to listening and communicating what they hear. The distractions, the noise, the space, the quality of the stereo equipment and most importantly, the limitations on time, make purposeful listening and discussion in large classes impossible.”

The students in Music 102 had opportunities to learn through asynchronous methods (using the technology “Articulate,” which is an amplification of quiz-type software in which students read and answer questions, sometimes with hints) and also in an OpenSim environment, a virtual world where their avatar can move around and interact with content to enhance learning.

Students could listen to music selections, read a concert program or watch a video of a dance or a puppet show. They were also able to interact with their classmates to discuss what they had learned, and in so doing, improve their ability to talk about the music.

Boechler notes that there are many talented instructors on campus, people for whom teaching is second nature, but others need teaching support and guidance, often with incorporating technology into their teaching.

“The Faculty of Education’s work is somewhat different from other faculties because teaching and learning is our primary focus,” Boechler explains. “We think about it all the time; our research is centred on teaching and learning.”

Boechler is careful to emphasize that adopting technology for its own sake is a mistake.

“Before you commit to using the newest, shiniest technology, you have to make sure you know what learning objectives you are trying to achieve,” she says. Instructors should first carefully isolate and identify what results they are striving for, then choose the most appropriate technology to facilitate the activities that promote that learning.

“Educational technology is more than just hardware, SMART boards and laptops—it is a question of cognitive development, learning theory, best teaching practices and knowing what students will need to know in the future.”

Corbett Artym never planned on setting foot in the Faculty of Education. But after completing his BSc in computing science and math, he developed a taste for learning and realized that he wanted to touch minds, the way he had been inspired.

“It was important to me to lead by example,” Artym says. He registered for a BEd and discovered a new world that provided the perfect bridge: a master’s in education with a technology in education specialization.

Technology is being employed in classrooms to address many issues. From handling behaviour issues to assisting visually impaired students, to making content come alive, the possibilities are endless, he says.

“We work to effectively integrate technologies into the educational process,” explains Artym. “For example, we examine how LEGO robotics or the construction of video games can be used as instruments to teach other content areas.”

One area being explored is whether there are benefits to learning in a virtual world.

PhD student Erik de Jong helped develop a virtual U of A campus for a research project that has been used for new students as part of their campus orientation. “The feedback was really positive. It helped them to get an idea of what the campus looked like before they arrived, so it wasn’t as overwhelming.”

De Jong notes that the research possibilities for virtual reality are really exciting. “We want to know, what can people learn in a virtual world? How do people use a map in a virtual world? How do they behave in a social situation?” He notes that virtual worlds could be used to provide “practice” situations for children with social anxiety.

Video game technology is also a growing area for pedagogical research. In fact, the Faculty of Education has a class for that, called Interactive Multimedia: Video Gaming for Teaching and Learning. “We want to teach teachers how students can build video games as a way of engaging learners in the classroom,” de Jong says.

“After you identify the learner (including any special needs or language barriers) and zero in on the content, you need to find a tool to deliver the information. The fact is, video games can teach things that other approaches can’t,” explains de Jong. He provides the example of trying to get kids interested in the North American fur trade. “As kids design a game around the content, they are learning both higher order-based thinking skills and about the fur trade. Best of all, the work is fun.”

Graduates of the MEd with a technology specialization can be found all over the U of A campus and out in the world. Their skills are in demand as people everywhere try to integrate technology into the work they do.

Beyond the classroom and into the virtual world