Choosing Technology That Just Works | Higher Ed Innovator Spotlight
Stephen Thurston has been teaching journalism and composition since 1998 at Montgomery College in Rockville, Maryland, a large community college serving around 21,000 students. Having taught in higher education since 1990, he’s seen a lot of classroom technology claiming to be “the solution.” After learning the ins and outs of learning management systems (LMS) over the years, there was always one prevailing problem: nothing really worked.
According to Thurston, engaging students through technology, organizing assignments and quizzes, and trying to tap into the full potential of the digital classroom all seemed appealing, but constant bugs and system failures in most LMSs left him wanting more. He decided to establish a simple guideline for choosing his technology: does it work?
Though a fear of new technology can often be a driving force to slow down adoption, Thurston realized that the status quo was no longer sufficing, and standing still just wasn’t an option. In 2013, he turned to Schoology, an LMS known for breaking convention and putting collaboration at the heart of the learning experience, and hasn’t looked back since.
“It’s all easy to do, and it works,” Thurston notes. “That would be the biggest reason I use it, and now I use it for everything.”
And he really does mean everything. From uploading assignments to administering quizzes to communicating directly with students, digitizing the classroom experience through a comprehensive LMS has irreversibly changed the classroom—“I use every element I can in Schoology,” Thurston says.
According to Thurston, his students used to run into problems finding their homework in “convoluted” folder systems or they “got half way through the test and it shut off on them.” Whereas technology was supposed to simplify the classroom, inefficient LMSs were causing more headaches.
But Thurston found himself drawn to Schoology’s design, mainly thinking the “modern” look would mean “students would actually be more inclined to use it,” and his hypothesis proved true. Because of the user-friendly design, students have been readily engaging with all sorts of features, paving the way for Thurston to create a truly modern classroom.
In a two-and-a-half week grammar class he teaches, Thurston utilized numerous kinds of materials, including videos hosted in Google Drive and embedded in his Schoology course. Students could complete roughly 45 exercises with 10 questions each on the page and a number of tests while Thurston seamlessly interacted with the class and graded everything.
“It was beautiful, it went off without a hitch,” he said. “I absolutely loved it.”
Because he teaches multiple classes across composition, grammar, and journalism during a given semester, developing an easy-to-use, comprehensive digital network has allowed Thurston to effectively scale the learning experience to a manageable model.
His students now receive personalized, one-on-one feedback and communications on a regular basis. This faculty/student collaboration extends further through the use of the Schoology mobile app.
“The app explosion has come,” Thurston says. In his journalism and newspaper course, he annotates documents on the mobile app right in front of his student authors to provide personalized and constructive feedback in real time. This feature, on its own, is something Thurston is wild about, but he says it’s even better because the mobile app works seamlessly with the main platform.
Thurston knows campuswide adoption may be difficult for a number of reasons. Getting every teacher on a new system can be challenging, and trepidation about technology offers its own set of issues. However, given the shortcomings of other, more traditional LMSs, Thurston’s commitment to improving teaching and learning has led him to forge his own path.
He discarded the old adage, “this is how it’s always been done” and instead devised his own criteria—usability and reliability. For Thurston, Schoology was the obvious choice and it has payed off.
Over to you. What are your main criteria for evaluating technology?