John Wataha: Catalyst at the School of Dentistry

Help Center Profiles of Technology Use John Wataha: Catalyst at the School of Dentistry
Dr. John Wataha

Dr. John Wataha
Chair, Department of Restorative Dentistry
UW School of Dentistry, Seattle


Catalyst at the School of Dentistry

Before arriving at UW, Dr. John Wataha "hadn’t really done any teaching with the Web." But since coming to the University of Washington School of Dentistry, he’s become an advanced user and a proponent of Catalyst Web Tools. "Catalyst has fundamentally expanded the opportunities and strategies I have to teach our students."

As Chair of the Department of Restorative Dentistry, Wataha was in a position to try changing some existing practices, such as posting grades to an office bulletin board, which sometimes compromised student privacy and affected staff efficiency. Using student numbers as identifiers wasn’t adequate to preserve privacy, he thought. And students would pepper the administrative staff with questions about when grades would be posted, which was inefficient for students and staff. Dr. Wataha thought that there might be a better solution.

"Few in our group were using Catalyst when I got here." Observing the trend toward online technology in teaching, Wataha considered the options. He’d heard about Catalyst Web Tools and, with the help of UW-IT and departmental staff, started teaching himself how to use them. He chose Catalyst over learning management systems for three reasons: 1) he knew that the University was moving toward campus-wide online grade submission systems, and wanted to stay abreast of upcoming changes; 2) he felt that as a University-wide system, Catalyst would be well supported with help and new tools; and 3) he’d already learned for himself that “the tools are intuitive and easy to use."

After getting comfortable with the tools, he began showing other faculty within the department what Catalyst offers. He observes, "About half the faculty in our group are now using Catalyst Web Tools in some form, and they are actively experimenting to see how they can adapt the tools to their needs." In addition to Gradebook, Wataha uses CommonView, GoPost, and WebQ to structure his courses, and hopes to add Collect It next year.

Honing Skills of Lifelong Learning

Among other purposes, CommonView provides a place for Wataha to post lecture notes (in a PDF file) before class. He uses Windows Journal*, which allows him to sketch images and add a lecture outline. “I create a final version of the lecture first, and then subtract details and annotations. Then I create a handout from the subtracted version, which I post on the course CommonView site.” Students download the file and can print it out and bring it to class to take notes on paper, or mark up a PDF version on their tablet PCs. Wataha estimates that about half his students are using paper, and half have tablet PCs, but he believes that e-note-taking will gradually replace paper.

Lecture notesClick lecture notes to view full image.

Posting the file on CommonView isn’t merely a convenience for students. The partial outline and sketches meet a pedagogical objective: helping students develop strong note-taking, listening, and information organizational skills. "During the lecture, I build the information step by step using the incomplete notes and drawings. It’s up to the student to build along with me, using that outline; I think that helps them understand, remember, organize, integrate, analyze, and apply information."

Asked if note-taking is particularly important in a dental career, Wataha replies, "It’s an important life skill for all of us. If we intend to be lifelong learners, we need to know how to take notes well and organize information—this leads to integration, critical assessment, and growth." When students adapt to a passive mode of simply receiving content (via handouts or PowerPoint slides provided in many classes), the interactive skill of note-taking atrophies or never develops. Wataha is not a fan of PowerPoint. "It’s designed for the presentation of an idea, not teaching. I think there’s a difference. PowerPoint can be used effectively in teaching; I just don’t think that happens very often. It tends to be a passive way of presenting information. Many learning opportunities are lost." (For more thoughts about how interacting with information builds knowledge, see our profile of Mike Eisenberg.)

After the lecture, Wataha posts complete versions on the course CommonView workspace, fostering collaboration and information sharing among students. Students can compare their notes with those of the instructor and, in the process, learning occurs from the debates that arise among students. Video links to the lectures give the students an opportunity to review areas where they do not feel comfortable with their level of understanding.

Virtual Office Hours via GoPost

On the night before exams, Wataha uses GoPost to make himself available for virtual office hours. During two designated hours, students post questions on the discussion board, and Wataha and other students answer and discuss them. "I’ll usually hang back a bit before jumping in with answers. I want to see if the students can help one another first." He’s been pleased with the student participation during these sessions. "Some participate actively during the GoPost session. All of them go and read the thread later. I know this because I see hundreds of hits to the site. There are only 55 students in the course, so students are going there more than once." He notes that GoPost provides a way for all students to have access to review sessions, whether they are on campus, at home, or distance learning students. Wataha plans to expand his use of GoPost beyond exam prep sessions in future quarters.

Immediate Feedback with WebQ

Administering quizzes through WebQ allows Wataha to use more time in class for lecture material. For quizzes, he sets a five-hour window, and gives each student a 15-minute limit in which to take the quiz. As they’re taking a quiz, "there’s no going back to review previous questions. They just have to move ahead with the decision they’ve made. I tell them, ‘It’s like life in dentistry that way.’ When you make a surgical cut, you’ve made it, and you have to proceed from there." WebQ gives Wataha immediate statistical feedback, which allows him to assess the effectiveness of his teaching, make mid-course adjustments, correct misconceptions, and emphasize areas that appear to be incompletely conveyed.

Looking to the Future

Although Wataha has become an adept user of classroom technologies, he isn’t satisfied with the status quo. He sees many opportunities for improving assessment and student interaction via technology. Digital formats for the wax models that students are required to create, smart software for assessing the wax models, and digitized images that demonstrate oral and dental dynamics (currently instructors rely on manipulating layered acetates which are then projected) are just a few possibilities he envisions.

Wax model of teethWax model created by dental student.

Perhaps most critically, Wataha would like to find a way for technology to improve the interaction between students and instructors. There is significant potential for distance learning (the UW School of Dentistry provides distance learning for first- and second-year students based in Spokane). Although some classrooms are specifically designed for distance learning, current methods don’t fully support interaction between students in Spokane and the instructor in Seattle. Inadequate support for interaction is also a problem in the lab, where there is one primary instructor teaching 70 students. In the lab transmission of information is one way; the primary instructor can’t see all the students, and asking questions is nearly impossible.

Technological gaps in pedagogy still exist and room for improvement remains. Such gaps provide inspiration for UW-IT to keep improving and expanding the tools available to faculty. Meanwhile, instructors such as Wataha find creative ways to use the tools to maximize the potential of his students.


* Windows Journal is a note-taking accessory that lets you create and organize the handwritten notes you make with a tablet PC.

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