Teaching Efficiency…

As teachers, we tend to focus on pedagogy as the great hope for improvement.

We spend our professional development and meeting time talking improved syllabi, new theories of learning, better designed assignments, or improved feedback.

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And these are clearly, and massively, important.

But long ago (1980s), engineers, lawyers, accountants and other professionals looked to technology to save time. Spreadsheet softeware, CAD (Computer Aided Design) software, and other tools are now integral to these professions.

Educators are famously reluctant to look to technology for help. Sure, every school has its 10 to 15% (my estimate) of technology early adopters. But there hasn’t been a compelling reason for educators to embrace technology. In 1982 you either learned CAD as an engineer, or looked for another job (okay, or got promoted to management).

Thankfully educators are not usually under such autocratic rule, but perhaps it is no accident that the two industries with the least productivity over the last 20 years, and the largest year-on-year cost increases, are medicine and education. Both are people intensive. If you want to teach more students and cure more patients, you have to hire more people. Technology companies and accounting companies do not have their productivity tied to people-power in the same way, and so many medium-sized companies that had full-time accounting departments 20 years ago can now look to a single person or two, or simply outsource the work.

The comparisons with education don’t go too far, and they also become politically sensitive.

One of the great things about being a teacher is the ability to control your own process. We aren’t slaves to the computer system like so many credit card company employees who have to follow a script and cannot work around the computer.

Increasingly, teachers are doing more with electronic documents, blogs, wikis, and e-learning platforms like Blackboard. Whether entering grades online into PowerSchool so parents can keep up on their children, responding to discussions in Moodle, or reading hundreds of papers a term in Microsoft Word, we spend a lot of time looking at computer screens.

And the computer screens that most of us use are horrible. Teachers often opt for laptops for all the obvious reasons, but the screen real estate is quite limited. These days, it is very easy and quite economical to add additional monitors to your office set up. Even two 17″ monitors (less than $200 each) can impact productivity 20-30% according to many studies.

About 18 months ago I got a new desktop with two 20″ Dell monitors. I have really enjoyed having email on one monitor, Blackboard on the other. Or a Word document on one, and Waypoint on the other. Less clicking, less moving between programs…it’s like getting your first remote control or a car with power windows: you just can’t imagine going back.

I’m not that smart, though. I’ve been running them in landscape mode. I recently flipped one to portrait mode, and the results were unbelievable. Most documents and websites are far taller than they are wide. So I just flipped the second monitor…and I feel as though my workspace has doubled (and they take up less space on my desk because they don’t stick out much further than the width of my keyboard).

In all my travels to schools and colleges, it’s only the techies who use a dual set up (some have 3 or even 4 monitors, all connected to the same computer). So how far away are we from regular teachers being able to increase their productivity by 30%+ when using software and websites? Years?

Some will say that schools won’t pay. But in my experience, in multiple organizations, the money is there if people ask for it, then demand it, then really demand it. The techy person always get the latest computer upgrades and the person who doesn’t care is stuck with the old garbage.

Some will say that money spent on technology for increasing productivity will result in larger teaching loads. This is a more valid concern, and is partly the reason for ever-increasing costs in education. Everyone is afraid they’ll be asked to do more. That’s a subject for another time.

The easy answer for this blog is: buy them for yourself!

Currently, an extremely high-quality 20″ widescreen monitor from Dell is $289. Most contemporary laptops are capable of running an external monitor along with the laptop display. So for $300 you can bring home your school-provided laptop and have a dual-monitor setup.

For $600 (the price of a good 17″ flatscreen monitor 6 years ago) and a modest graphics card upgrade on your next desktop purchase, you’ll be in nirvana with two 20″ screens totalling 2100 x 3360 pixels.

When i talk to people about this idea they either love it or say they can’t imagine their cursor moving from one monitor to another, or that they won’t like it. Or that they’ve tried it and don’t like it. I’m not sure whether it’s a question of just working a little harder and longer to get used to the minor change, or if these folks are the equivalents of an older generation that didn’t want a phone in their house.

Leaving aside personal choices, here’s the bottom line. There are 4 screenshots below: a word doc and a Waypoint Evaluate page, both shown in regular ‘laptop’ resolution and on my 20″ monitor in portrait mode.

First up, a Word document in laptop resolution:

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Same document, now in portrait-mode on a 20″ monitor:

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Waypoint on a laptop:

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Waypoint on a 20″ monitor in portrait-mode:

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Finally, imagine these two documents, in their longer form, side-by-side on dual monitors. ‘Nuff said.

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5 Responses to Teaching Efficiency…

  1. George Martinez says:

    Thank you for this very informative article. Your points are very well-taken. I teach several online courses during the semester and have often wondered about issues like eye strain for instructors who teach a great deal online. The larger monitor and the adjustments that you’ve noted should greatly increase the efficiency of teaching online.

    • 11trees says:

      That’s a great price…and a good strategy.

      I saw in today’s Parade magazine (part of the Sunday paper) that Dell’s deal on Tuesday is a 23″ for $149 – with free shipping. That’s large enough that you only need one monitor to get the gains of dual monitors in the past.

      One note about used monitors – I’ve noticed that my 20″ screens have dimmed significantly (lots and lots of use) vs. a new monitor I have connected to a new laptop…so if the screens have seen a lot of use it may not be worth buying them unless they’re $15. Nice point about recycling, though.

  2. Jay Bhatt says:

    Hi Andrew,

    I am really happy to see this blog.
    I would like to explore waypoint again in more depth.
    Can I be able to try again?

    Thanks so much,

    Jay
    bhattjj@drexel.edu

    • 11trees says:

      Jay,

      Great to hear from you.

      Waypoint is now a PowerLink for Bb Vista…so you can get to it from any COAS or COB course (COAS and COB are the only schools with a current license). Did you have specific assessment projects in mind?

  3. Rob says:

    Any additional screen space is a bonus. I’m the spouse of a teacher and my wife loves our dual monitor setup. Didn’t have the desk space or $ to buy dual 20″ monitors, but was able to spring for two 17″ monitors on sale at Compusa for $79 each. It helps if you are using two sid-by-side for them to match. Another option is to check sites like craigslist. There always seems to be people with more money than us upgrading their equipment. Could probably get a decent 17″ LCD for under $40. Craigslist is nice because you can buy locally to make sure it works, and it’s a greener alternative to buying new. Haven’t tried it ever, but you might even be able to get people to reduce the price if you’re a teacher.

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