Tuesday, October 28, 2008

On Course, #3: Teaching with Technology

In this chapter, James Lang stakes out what I think of as a moderate position on the use of technology in teaching, neither Luddite nor naive enthusiast. He points to some of the advantages, both pedagogical and professional, of integrating technology into our teaching, but also denies that we need to "radically restructure education" (44) in order to meet the needs of Millennials or digital natives. I'm inclined to agree, inasmuch as in order to teach effectively with technology, you have to know how to teach effectively in the first place. As Lang puts it, "the basic principles of teaching and learning" apply in "whatever environment we and our students find ourselves." Indeed, he goes so far as to allow that effective teaching can be extremely low-tech: "you do not need to make use of technology in any way to be an effective teacher." (59)

Lang doesn't dwell on specific technologies in the chapter, which is wise given that (a) many technologies have a short shelf life and are quickly rendered obsolete, and (b) the start-up costs of mastering a wholly unfamiliar technology are high.

The one technology Lang focuses on are learning mangagement systems (LMS's), a la Blackboard, Sakai, Moodle, WebCT, etc. He notes four uses for LMS's:
  1. They facilitate the use of various multimedia in the classroom. I try to show videos, use photographs, etc. when I can. As we've discussed here before, philosophy is a discipline that's not especially congenial to those with a strongly visual approach to learning, so we should at least try to augment the highly verbal-textual content with visual materials. Does anyone have any examples from their own teaching of innovative uses of multimedia?
  2. LMS's create an organized course space that will automatically tabulate grades, etc.
  3. They provide a documentary history for one's teaching (useful for promotion and tenure), as well as making it easy to draw upon old course materials to create new courses and materials. I have to say that I've become highly reliant on Blackboard as a repository of quizzes, writing assignments, etc., that I can use to design or revise courses.
  4. LMS's offer discussion boards to build community among students, enabling those less willing to speak openly in class contribute to the class discussions on their own terms. Lang has some nice ideas as to how to use the boards: scanning their content to identify common learning challenges the students are facing, the 'log assignment' (pp. 50-51), etc. He recommends making participation in the discussing boards mandatory rather than optional, lest you end up with the e-quivalent of "crickets chirping." That certainly echoes my experience. Students will not contribute to these discussion boards unless they're required to do so. My sense is that the novelty of participating in these boards wore off a long time ago. On the other hand, I've not been entirely happy with the outcome even when I have required students to contribute to online discussion boards. In many respects, the very problems that occur in classroom discussion replicate themselves in online forums. Students write without thinking, have not prepared by reading the material, don't engage very deeply with one another's ideas, make pro forma efforts ("That's so true," "I agree with that," etc.). There are exceptions, of course — and perhaps my own experience is exceptional — but I've formed the provisional hypothesis that online discussion works well only when students already have the skills and attitudes that enable useful offline discussion (and only a few students have those skills and attitudes). But I'd be most interested in hearing others' thoughts on the use of online discussion.
This links to one last remark I wanted to offer. Lang's chapter is about teaching with technology but says relatively little about students learning with technology. This is a bit of a surprise, considering how I praised Lang in an earlier post for highlighting the shift from teaching to learning:
The simple observation that the question 'what or how should I teach?' is subordinate to the question 'what will students learn?' is still revolutionary, despite the fact approaching teaching in terms of student learning is now the central theme of almost all the literature on college teaching.

Yet as some of my recent posts might suggest, the main issue with technology is not our using it, but our using it to help students learn. And I'm somewhat pessimistic that our students know how to use technology to learn, regardless of how adept they are at using technology.

Next up will be a topic dear to all our hearts (lecturing), but please take this chance to share your thoughts and ideas about teaching with technology.


  1. Thanks for the post, Michael. I'm definitely a "digital native," but I don't use technology that heavily in my courses. Good point about the difference between teaching-with-technology and learning-with-technology.

    We once tried requiring Blackboard-based discussion board participation in a class for which I was a TA. Even though we had very specific assignments about what to post, how to respond to others, and when, participation rates were very disappointing. We abandoned it the following year. Lots of people just wouldn't participate.

    Two specific ways I use technology to give better feedback to students (without overburdening myself with grading):

    1. In some courses, I require one-page "papers" on questions about the reading for every class session. I give them a quick grade of 1-5 and then post one of the best papers on Blackboard as a sample. Blackboard shows that a majority of students have looked at these sample papers, with some students visiting them often. It's an easy way to provide feedback on assignments.

    2. In providing feedback on longer papers, I use Microsoft Word's commenting and revision-tracking features to embed comments directly in students' texts. (This requires that students submit papers electronically. Mine email papers to me.) I can give more detailed, focused comments than when I scribble in the margins or provide long comments at the end of a paper.

    I'm planning to build a more elaborate, custom system for the spring semester. I'll post another comment later describing what I have in mind.

  2. Michael,
    You raise a good point about our students learning with technology. I've tried to strike a balance on this issue, specifically with Powerpoint. I usually prefer not to use it, but the feedback I've received from students is almost unanimously in support of it. There may be a variety of reasons for this, but I try to structure the slides in such a way that simply downloading them from Blackboard will not enable one to skip class and simply memorize the slides. Given their preferences, I've incorporated it more into my classes.
    Second, with respect to multimedia, I use You Tube when I can. It takes work sometimes to find something suitable, but just this week I used a couple of short clips to set up discussion of Title IX and Jane English's article "Sex Equality in Sports".



  3. As an undergrad student I've been finding these posts very interesting in respect to approaches when dealing with "us". I've always personally been more of a fan of a professor who doesn't use powerpoint, because the problem I find is that often some professors don't use powerpoint effectively.

    Sometimes (and I find this happens mostly in 1st year intro courses) the entire lecture is simply typed up on powerpoint slides and are basically read word for word. This has an effect on both the students who are interested in the material and those who are just taking a philosophy due to misconceptions of it being a bird course. For students, like myself, who want to be engaged by lectures powerpoints often result in slacking off and I hate to admit it, but courses in which professors predominantly use powerpoints poorly I found myself falling asleep. However, there are cases of professors who do manage to use powerpoints and technology within the class effectively but then, it has an adverse affect on attendance within lectures because why would someone want to wake up for a class when they could sleep in and just pull the powerpoint off of blackboard?

    I've always been more of a fan of the traditional professor who just lectures, uses the actual blackboard with chalk, occasionally has handouts and I take notes. I find that personally, it keeps me more engaged in the lecture because when I do not have a powerpoint slide to rely on as a backup in case I missed something, I listen much more carefully and absorb more information.

  4. Oh, no! "They're" reading this! Quick, someone crash the blog before they learn our secrets!

    Thanks for the input, Undergrad. I agree with you. Poor use of Powerpoint is disastrous, and good use of it is rare. As both a professor and a student, I much prefer chalk-and-talk to slides-and-snooze.

  5. I’ve never used PowerPoint in a Philosophy class, though I often do in my more art oriented Humanities classes. I also limit my Philosophy lectures to allow for discussion time. My classes are relatively small, so I encourage (heavily) students to express their understanding of concepts. This allows me to know if students are grasping some concepts.

    To the topic at hand; I use a LMS (no longer Blackboard) in all my classes. In some classes, like Philosophy, I rely on the LMS as a means to collect papers and occasionally administer quizzes. I no longer accept paper copy; instead students submit electronically and retrieve papers electronically. The grade book is online, so students always know where they stand. I love the flexibility of my system. I can have students submit papers when I really grade them – so instead of collecting papers in class Tuesdays, I allow students to post until Saturday morning when I realistically will have time to grade them. There are no lost or misplaced papers – no students arguing that it was submitted even though I don’t have it. My worst case scenario was a student who claimed his ex girlfriend stole his paper from the stack on my desk while my back was turned. This also provides me with a digital copy to submit to Turnitin.com.

    Finally, I use the LMS to make general information available, to post links to good websites, and to post class notes. I do warn students that class notes do not substitute for in class discussions.

  6. Gail, maybe I should try using BlackBoard again for paper submission. I tried it a couple years ago, but it was a disaster. For some reason, the system would often appear (from the student's perspective) to accept a paper, but then from my perspective the paper would not be there. I was unable to find out what the problem was, even with the help of the IT folks at my college at the time. So I spent a semester having to contact students to ask them to send me their papers again, which got old very quickly. I also seem to recall some other technical glitches. Anyway, I became thoroughly turned off Blackboard, at least as a way to have students submit papers. But maybe I should give it another chance. (I do use it now, but only minimally -- posting test scores, the syllabus, etc.) What's your experience been like?

  7. Why not have the students submit their own papers to turnitin.com? That's what I do, and it works great.

  8. Gail, what LMS do you use?

    Gazza, I used to have students turn papers in on Blackboard, and had two or three students every time who encountered that problem. In every case that I saw, the problem was that the students had clicked 'Add Paper' instead of 'Send Paper' in their Digital Dropbox, which uploads the paper to Blackboard but doesn't send it to you. Blackboard (at least in the version we use) is terrible at making it clear that the paper has not been shared with other users. And no matter how detailed and emphatic I made the instructions about turning the paper in, this always happened. Sigh....email works marginally better, though there are still problems with spam filters form time to time.

    Anon 7:15, I've thought about doing that. How do your students react to it? In what format(s) do you receive papers that are submitted through TurnItIn?

  9. I said earlier that I'd post something about my desiderata for an online course management system. Here it is. I'll be curious to see if anyone has any suggestions or warnings.

    I want a system where:

    (1) Students can log in, see the "reading questions" for the day, and submit their answers to those questions so that only I can see them.

    (2) I can log in; review the submitted answers; see when each answers was submitted; give each a score of 1–5, and maybe highlight some items on a rubric that bear attention); and "publish" the best answer(s) so that everyone in the class can see them.

    (3) Scores are automatically saved and displayed to students; students are automatically notified when their assignments have been graded, and they log in again to see my assessment.

    It would be nice if the system could also post announcements, accept and return papers, etc.

    I figure this will do for homework assignments what Gail's CMS does for papers: no "missing" assignments, no "I couldn't make it to class last time to turn in my assignment, but I swear I did it on time," etc. And no more lull in class while handing back homework (which I hate).

    I'm planning on building this myself in January using Drupal. For those who are interested in Drupal, a book on using Drupal in educational contexts just came out, and there's a web group for Drupal in Education.

  10. Gazza - Our college used Blackboard for several years. As David said, you need to make sure students know to submit their papers rather than save. Also, I stopped using the digital drop box and used the assignments - it helps with organizing the papers and allows for entering the grade in the gradebook.

    Anon - my students also submit directly to Turnitin.com. Many of our faculty also use the grading program provided by turnitin.com. I simply tell students they are required to submit and they do - no complaints - at least not to me.

    Turnitin will keep the formating of submitted papers - they can be uploaded in word or rich text and will download the same way.

    David - Our college switched from Blackboard just this year. We now use a smaller LMS - WebStudy. It is less expensive that Blackboard, very student friendly - and has lots of support. It does lack some of the whiz-bang elements that Blackboard has, but I am enjoying the system. Among the nicer elements is that the system is hosted - this allows for larger files. For a Humanities class that I teach online, I have posted narrated slides. Students look at a painting and hear me talk about it.

    The discussion forums might work for your homework, but submissions are public. Some teachers use the forums for short response essays and grade them accordingly. I have had students take a one question quiz - a short essay question. If I wanted to share the best I could cut and paste it into the forum.

    I'll take a look at Drupal - It sounds interesting.

  11. Gail,

    The learning curve on Drupal is steep without some kind of book as guidance, though it's very powerful once you learn the ropes—especially with all of the contributed modules from the Drupal community. I haven't seen the book on Drupal and education yet, but even if you're very computer savvy, I'd suggest getting that or a Drupal for beginners book to get you started.


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