Teaching with Technology
As someone who once made a living customizing software and teaching users how to take advantage of it, I cannot help but want to learn what new tools might enhance the learning environment for my students. Given how much software has become an integral part of many workplaces, I also believe that it is important for today’s students to be familiar with the regular use of web-based tools. That said, I try not to overwhelm my students with new technology and offer detailed instructions or links to instructions whenever I introduce a tool. Apart from the benefits for learning, using computer-based tools allowed me to support my former school’s goals in becoming a more eco-friendly environment. Several of my courses at American University were certified for “Green Teaching.”
Online classes seem to lend themselves particularly to introducing new software, as the students already expect to work primarily with web-based tools. In summer 2013, my class used Piazza instead of Blackboard for online discussions, which seemed to work well. Piazza was initially designed with problem-solving in the STEM disciplines in mind, so it has its limits for the humanities and social sciences. It nevertheless provided an environment that was much easier to navigate than Blackboard’s discussion board, which I had used in the past. While Piazza is fairly intuitive to use, I scheduled Blackboard Collaborate sessions with my students to show them a few tricks in how to navigate the tool. In order to introduce myself to my online students and to offer short lectures, I created Panopto presentations that integrate video of me with PowerPoint slides. After the first weeks, I posted audio recordings created on my Smartphone to introduce new themes and assignments.
In fall 2013, one of my classes built a “wiki” based in Google Sites by posting results from their weekly in-class group sessions. Since reading is crucial for the classes I teach, I always look for ways to ensure students are engaging with the texts or watching the videos I assign before they come to class. In the past, I have used online quizzes within Blackboard for this purpose or sent questions about the readings for students to answer in a return email. Recently, I was looking into Classroom Salon and its corresponding online collaborative reading and annotating tool for pdf-files, Flip, but I have not yet used either in the classroom.
In the past, I have used Facebook pages for students to post course-related comments in a private, class-specific environment. I have also used Jing and Screencast to create short videos to explain a concept, PrimaryPad for collaborative writing and Wallwisher for anonymous feedback from students. A German colleague and I used GoogleDocs and Skype to prepare two joint online courses and SurveyMonkey to get feedback from our German and American students. In the second iteration of the course, I created a YouTube video to introduce myself to the students.
I have used Blackboard extensively to organize course material and for student blogs/journals, online tests, and to post grades throughout the semester. Despite its drawbacks, I still use PowerPoint or Prezi presentations to guide myself and the students through our meetings, yet I try to keep text to a minimum and use the screen primarily to explore images together. I ask students to submit their assignments as MS Word or equivalent documents instead of hard copies, so I can provide clearly legible feedback using standard software tools.
Students and Technology
While I realize that students are easily distracted if they are allowed to use electronic devices in the classroom, I obviously also view them as useful tools for learning. I have tried different approaches, ranging from prohibiting any kind of electronic device in the classroom to allowing them for note-taking and occasional research, especially during group work sessions. In the latter case, I explain the penalties involved for each time I catch a student doing any non-class related work on such devices during our meetings. I have had mixed results with this and continue to decide on the rules on a class-by-class basis.