Technology and pedagogy: what's good is what works.

John Gast, "American Progress," 1872

John Gast, "American Progress," 1872

Inside Higher Ed reports on a study that says that faculty think they’re more tech savvy than their students think they are.   Color me unsurprised!  Second commenter “bevo” explains some of the perception gap here, and asks, “Why do we assume that all technology has to improve education?”  Why indeed?  It’s only useful if it’s used thoughtfully and effectively.

In case you haven’t guessed, I’m pretty far from what you’d call an “early adapter” of anything.  But, I’m open to whatever works–I don’t see me adopting Twitter for use in class or out, but I think it’s great if other faculty want to experiment with it and figure out how it’s useful for their pedagogical goals. 

I’ve become a big adherent of PowerPoint, because of its ability to incorporate visual and verbal information–I’m able to include analyses of a wider range of documentary and material culture sources in my lectures because of it.  (That, and the fact that there are so many big, beautiful color images of just about everything that I can rip from the web.)  But, it took me a long time to switch from a lecture outlined on an overhead projector to PowerPoint.  When people first started using PowerPoint, I was extremely underwhelmed with how they were using it:  either as a digital overhead projector, with the same outline and bullet points, or illustrated badly with anachronistic images.  I don’t use any images that can’t be analyzed as primary sources–a challenge in my period, but it can be done.

Switching to PowerPoint changed my lectures, which became less detail- and narrative-driven, and more opportunities for exploring “big concepts” with both verbal and visual information that I hope will set the stage for the week’s readings in each of my classes.  I think my lectures are more interesting and more effective, in part because of the technology.  (Perhaps the PowerPoint just gave me a prompt or an assist to what probably happens anyway after 5 or 10 years of teaching; I used to walk into class with 8 single-spaced pages of notes, then with 5 pages, then with 3 pages, then sometimes with just an outline. . . now with the outlines of the lectures embedded in my PowerPoint slides, I don’t bring any notes at all to class, and can just riff on the slides.)

What technologies do you use now that you can’t imagine doing without?  What technologies have you attempted but failed to integrate into your pedagogy?  I can’t see myself using social networking or other web 2.0 technologies, at least not yet.  I think my students still need practice presenting their ideas and discussing course readings face-to-face–call me old-fashioned, but I think class discussions in real time are useful in developing intellectual, social, and professional skills that are central to the healthy functioning of the demos.

0 thoughts on “Technology and pedagogy: what's good is what works.

  1. I’ll be honest: the technology on my campus is so unreliable (and even more so with budget cuts to IT and a new system for managing things like class rosters and benefits that barely works) that I can barely be certain that I will be able to show a film or play an audio recording in my classrooms. Until I can count on the technology (and yes, I even mean for something as simple as powerpoint), I’m not using it.

    For online classes, I could not do without online synchronous chat (scheduled maybe 6-8 times throughout the semester). It’s not as perfect as face-to-face interaction, but it makes all of the difference in keeping everybody on the same page and in giving me some sense of who my students are. We do a course blog as well, but that doesn’t cut it in terms of “real” interaction.


  2. Dr. Crazy–good point about technology having to be available *and* reliable in your classrooms. It seemed to me in the 1990s that universities started investing heavily in technology because it was a marketing tool for luring future students, not because the administrators approving these purchases were figuring out how to use it effectively. Much of that was left to the faculty–which I suppose is better than being TOLD we’re going to use technology OR ELSE. (The universities where I have worked have sponsored workshops, etc. for introducing new technology to faculty–I’ve attended a few of these sessions.)

    I feel like more of us faculty are capable of experimenting with stuff and deciding if it works for us, or not.


  3. It’s funny that you post this now, because I just finished having a meeting with the publisher of my big survey text book, and we were talking about me figuring out how to incorporate their vast on-line supplement to the text book in my class.

    I use PowerPoint and can’t imagine living without it, now that we live in a world where mapstands no longer exist (remember those? You hand flip over the big color maps?). I also show a lot of artwork in some of my courses and use powerpoint for this, although the quality of the images is vastly inferior to old fashioned slides. But most of the PowerPoint I’ve seen used for text has been sloppy and unsound. Getting students copying down information from the screen rather than listening is a problem, in my opinion. Of course I still use a blackboard! Imagine that!

    Some of my colleagues were experimenting with how to use the “group discussion forum” functions of Blackboard – they said it turned out that it could be great for fostering conversations between students outside of class, especially for big classes. I never wrapped my mind around how exactly they implemented it, but it seemed like it had potential.


  4. Perpetua:
    1. They’ve still got mapstands in our history dept. For serious.

    2. I’ve done the discussion forum in Blackboard. I don’t love it, actually – I prefer a course blog as opposed to that for asynchronous discussion. The way I’ve implemented that sort of thing is to use it as a weekly assignment in lieu of something like response papers or journals. It’s worked quite well, depending on the course.


  5. I use everything from chalkboard only to a lab in which students all sit at computers. I really like using a chalkboard, among other things, it slows me down.

    I participated in leading a short couse this summer in which we used a wiki to organize the content. The immediacy, group on-the-fly editing, and linking to additional materials were all valuable. Graduate students participating in the course were tasked with generating notes, as a collaborative on-the-fly project, as the course proceeded. This worked quite well. We also maintained a page of definitions to which terms were added as they came up in questions. The wiki allowed instructors, who came from different institutions, to review each other’s material and helped us th arrange (and rearrange) the order of presentations as we built content. I think it’s worth investigating wikis it you do collaborative course content development, either with colleagues or students.


  6. We, too, have mapstands. The map of the modern world shows the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. But I actually use it, as I can have a map handy at the same time something is on the board or on the overhead.


  7. Re: Map-stands. But whats wrong with map-stands? I love flipping through the maps while I am lecturing… unfortunately, I usually end up with the map about the Soviet Union when I am lecturing on the Early Modern economy or the Byzantine Empire.

    To keep this firmly in the 1990s I offer the following lists of technology that made my teaching better (wired) or have not panned out in the classroom (tired)

    1. D2L Gradebook
    2. Email (fewer office hours)
    3. Projecting Maps and pictures through Preview on the Mac
    4. Posting lecture outlines and assignments on D2L
    5. PowerPoint (when writing a new lecture)

    1. Discussion forums on D2L (they seem like more work)
    2. Email (some questions are best asked and answered in person, I am having a hard time figuring out how to make that call.)
    3. The laptop university (students are more likely to play blackjack or facebook than take notes. I can tell)
    4. Posting images or trying to create web content for D2L
    5. PowerPoint (I’ve tried to convert old lectures into PPT and the results are rotten. You have to start over and re conceptualize things… I appreciated Historiann’s reflection on this)

    I would like to try building a wiki and get rid of the textbook in Western Civ (kind of like the ‘uncoverage’ idea in US history). Actually, I’d like to abolish Western Civ from the curriculum but thats another story.


  8. We have mapstands that would have been embarrassingly dated in the Eisenhower years, and flipping through them while trying to hold student attention is a lesson in humility from a physical coordination standpoint. I’ve never been able to stand sitting in a presentation audience where my attention was divided by lines of black words on a screen and a presenter sort of going through the bullet points in slow sonorous sequence. I think it’s distracting as hell, and so I don’t inflict the same on students. Pictures are different. We have front-of-the-class work stations that offer the internet, computer, video, TV, and what are called “document cameras.” I prefer the latter for the pictorial content that I–tracking Historiann’s comments–find indispensable for lectures. I like them better than Powerpoint because you can mix and match, zoom and pan, and sometimes virtually do overlays, as the evolving situation may require. Plus, I just fixated on that moment in cultural time a decade or so ago when the New York Times did that fabulously derisive article on the corporate practice of speaking in bulletese.
    I could not believe the academy would follow into that baby-talk gulch.

    I’m trying a class wiki for a project this semester, although the four graduate students in the class are being the chief tech officers for this part of it.

    What I don’t like a bit about *all* visual technology
    (until and unless universities start investing in backlit screens) is the tendency for teaching to happen “out of the dark” in order for the graphics to be visible. We’ve had to sit through some campus visit job teaching demonstrations in which you have to squint and lean forward to guess whether the candidate is moving toward the side of the room that has the windows, or the side that has the door. I can’t imagine a generation of alumni who will remember their teacheres as dim moving figures coronaed in light reflecting off the screen.

    Finally, why do the maintenance teams who end up installing this stuff think it’s a good idea to locate pull-down screens in front of the boards, rather than at an angle in the front corner of the room?


  9. From someone who is relatively new to the field- I went straight to lecturing from powerpoint, using it like Historiann as a guide to talk from, rather than writing a lecture or outline.This is entirely different from how I do conference papers- which I see as a totally different genre. Of course, it does rely on having good technology!


  10. Ahhh…mapstands. I’m getting nostalgic for all kinds of cutting-edge educational technologies of their day: the slide projector, the film strip/cassette tape duo, the clickety-clacking movie projector, the hornbook.

    I’ve written about this before, but students who have never breathed in the lovely perfume of the fresh mimeograph don’t know what they missed. Tragic! (Photocopies just don’t have the same zing, you know?)

    Indyanna–good question about the film screen and the blackboard placement forcing a choice of one or the other. Why not both?


  11. Are you familiar with ProfHacker? ( It’s my new crack this fall.

    On my campus, the grad school implemented a really great summer workshop on how to use technology *effectively* in the classroom. It’s been around for a dozen years and has shifted from a “let’s learn HTML!” to – more recently – free Web 2.0 tools, plus an overview of some of the things our university has (like our course manageemnt program). We also cover effective powerpoint use.

    I’m a pretty plugged in instructor and student. I don’t see myself using Twitter in the classroom anytime soon – primarily because I don’t yet have the opportunity to teach my own classes, and I’m still a bit leery of that one, to be honest (er, twitter in the classroom, that is: I tweet like crazy for personal purposes).

    But I really love our workshops because we focus it first around teaching goals – what do you want to accomplish, like collaborative learning, or incorporating visuals? THEN we move to looking at how technological tools can help you with that.

    My 2 go-to things right now: ProfHacker cued me into a great tool that enables students to schedule meetings online (we don’t have a good electronic calendar on campus yet for such purposes) AND I grade everything on-screen. My students upload their documents in Word format to the course management system. i use track changes to make comments and notes, then PDF the documents and return them via the course management system. I like my go-tos. 🙂


  12. I miss maps — I used to have ones you pulled down which hung above the chalkboard. We don’t have them, and I have to use powerpoint if I want a map (which I almost always do). At some point I’ll have to scan all my slides, too.


  13. I was a mimeo-junkie too, from K-to about 28 or so, when it went missing. Today it would probably fall victim to some kind of substance based zero-tolerance protocol even if it wasn’t technologically obsolete. Great picture on this post, btw, and it’s exZACtly where I am right now in the survey course, which means I’m running about a half-week off syllabus. I always used to get murdered in the pre-video game version of Oregon Trail, by a six year old of all things. Too many bullets, not enough bacon. This fall, if I break down around Chimney Rock, I’m going to make a left turn and point my lead ox, Browser, straight toward Potterville!


  14. If only more faculty used PowerPoint as you describe–to show vibrant images and offer students more opportunities for discussion and active, engaged learning. Unfortunately, I work in a basement with three lecture halls and a number of smaller classrooms, and at any time of the day, I can walk the halls, peer into open doors, and see faculty lecturing from very text-heavy PowerPoint slides–with no student interaction or participation whatsoever, and with very few visuals.

    It’s disheartening. As someone who is so steeped in the theory and praxis of undergraduate learning, seeing someone drone on from slides crammed with 14-point text is like watching a barber apply leeches. To me, it’s really that appalling and anachronistic. And it’s inexcusable.

    When I teach material culture or any other course that’s especially visual, I upload to the web a slide deck (as a PDF) packed with visuals, and encourage students to download it before class so that they can scrawl notes all over the images. Since the images appear on the midterm and final essay exams, students are grateful to have them in a printable form.

    I’m experimenting this quarter with Google docs with my museum studies grad students. Each week I create a new, blank doc and require students to post at least one question, one quote, and one comment (I borrowed this practice, but not the digital medium, from one of my mentors, who calls them QQCs) from/about the readings. The students begin to “talk” to one another in the document, and they come to class ready to continue the conversation. Best of all, I know which topics have interested or confounded them before I even arrive in the classroom.


  15. I’m particularly inspired by the suggestions that involve ways of getting students talking to each other about the readings before class. This can be so useful – they talk differently and more easily to each other than in class. I’ve noticed in my seminars that if I break them into groups of two at the beginning of every class, I *always* have a better discussion when we come back together. The quiet ones get a chance to preview their ideas and have more confidence in speaking out. It also gives the less-quick students time to think through problems. This seems to go much better when they can bounce ideas off each other, than when one tries to assign pre-circulated questions about the readings. And as Leslie comments above, it’s priceless to know what interested/ confused them beforehand.

    I’m all for any technology that encourages students to understand that they are the protagonist of their education.

    PowerPoints full of text are terrible! But for the record, I loved mapstands, but they’ve all disappeared in the unis where I’ve worked.


  16. Oh thank the goddess we don’t have to drag maps around with us wherever we go. Or have to struggle with slide carousels.

    Like you, Power Point is probably my main source of tech for all the reasons you outlined. Having sat through several colleagues’ lectures recently, though, I am surprised by the number of people who still use that technology poorly (either information overload on each slide or nothing of note).

    I like that our campus has on-line course packets for the students, which makes all of our lives easier.

    My classes are also media intensive, so video is critical (and YouTube comes in handy for quick clips).

    In the end, though, I think that I could give it all up if needed and still have the same class.


  17. I’ve had a great experience this semester doing something like Leslie describes, using a wiki insead of GoogleDocs in a grad seminar. Students posted questions and used the comment function to answer each others’ questions before class. It’s the same principle as a course I took as a grad student, where we had to circulate questions and answers via an email listserve, but the wiki was tidier and easier to work with. Posters could compose in a word processor and then cut-and-paste into the wiki, so the contributions flowed more naturally from everyone’s usual writing process; the contributions could be easily and tidily printed. All involved seemed to think it worked well, and the classes for which we did this really moved to another level of discussion because it was already underway. And it shifted the conversation away from me: students had to decide for themselves what was important or interesting, and began to debate among themselves in a way that they tend to be less willing to do in class.

    I also hate the reading from over-stuffed slide presentations (somehow omnipresent in presentations from administrators, IT people, and faculty committees!). I try to avoid this in my own lectures, where I rely on PPT to outline, present images, quotes for analysis, etc., but I’d be interested what other people think is the happy medium between too much and too little.


  18. PowerPoint, even though it has a bad reputation, can be good if slides are properly designed. I think the expression, “Death by PowerPoint,” comes from so many presenters filling up their slides with long lists of bullets.

    On the other hand, using PP for displaying visuals, animations, thought-provoking comments, and anything else engaging can enhance a lecture/presentation. Also, keeping in mind that a visual hierarchy is important helps too.

    I actually just came across some interesting research about how using sentences rather than phrases in slide titles can increase retention (at lease in more technical presentations) that I summarized here, if anyone’s interested:


  19. Thanks, everyone, for your thoughts on technology in the classroom. I’m really persuaded by those of you who have spoken up to recommend technologies that get the students engaged with the material and interacting with one another before class. I’ve always required weekly short essays, to ensure that they do the reading and think about it at least a little before class, but your ideas are really great about the value of getting them “talking” to each other before they even walk into the next class. My classes could definitely use a boost from some of your techniques.

    On the subject of bad uses of PowerPoint: a book I wholeheartedly recommend, although it’s not brand-new, is Edward Tufte’s The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. It was really helpful when thinking about designing charts and graphs for my dissertation (back when I cared about quantitative information!), but I think it made me a little smarter about effective visuals in general. It’s a very smart book–take a look at it, if at all possible, just for kicks.


  20. My favorite technologies from a teacher in a wired Upper School:

    You can have my Smart Board when you pry it from my cold dead hands.

    Smart Ideas and Smart notebook make my Smart Board even better. You should see the multi-media Smart Ideas map my colleagues and I built of the 1950s that my students explore on their laptops. Smart notebook is particularly useful for annotating primary documents together as a group.

    Google Earth – Can’t teach the first half of the World Survey or my environmental history class without it. Had students build google earth tours of the silk road for an assignment last year, will have the seniors do the same for Okie migrations.

    Pages – my new favorite program. Students in American Environmental History jigsawed various chapters of Changes in the Land. The used pages to combine their chapter summaries into booklets which basically became quick and dirty study guides.

    Big pieces of paper and colored pencils. Still a very effective technology. Make a brainstorm, a color-coded thematic timeline, a Y chart (like a Venn diagram with more room to write) or anything else.


  21. I love using my online gradebook, be it in D2l, Moodle, or Blackboard. I would be lost without it.

    Other technologies that I love using depending on the course are for more concept map presentations and course wikis. is something I came across at a conference that allows me to create a giant concept map and then zoom in as I go, it has been my new toy. As for wikis, rather than handing out study guides I have the class create one as part of an assignment and then they can have that available for their take home test on top of their notes.

    As for the comments on laptop schools, I have worked for 2 of them now, 1 high school and 1 college. They have both good and bad sides, but I find if I give students expectations at the beginning, there’s less blackjack going on. Most of the expectations have to do with making the use of technology meaningful to the students, and that is what I think we are all talking about here.

    I have used twitter in a class, but it was very specific to the course. I don’t recommend it with freshmen or sophomores, they had trouble keeping the academic and the personal separate.

    I have seen so many colleagues using technology for technology’s sake and the students get so engrossed in the technology, not the lesson.


Let me have it!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s