Lessons Learned From Teaching With Multiple Digital Tools
Back in 2011, I was offered an opportunity by the community college where I was an adjunct to design and teach the institution’s very first digital journalism course.
I’d been teaching there for a few years, advising the student newspaper, and teaching the associated class using a pre-existing syllabus. When the course was offered to me, I jumped at it. I was eager to build something new, and as a newspaper reporter who’d learned to use technology on the job at work, I wanted to develop a course that would teach students to write for online media. There was just one problem; technology was changing fast.
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There was a glut of new tools on the market in 2011, and in many cases, there was no industry best practice—publications and reporters were finding their own way, trying new tools and seeing what worked. Between the time I developed the syllabus in 2011 and taught it for the first time in 2012, the digital landscape had already shifted for journalists. No longer did I need a Flip camera to take video on the go, for example, instead I could use a phone.
I wanted to give my students a firm grounding in new technology, and there was a lot. I tried to include all of them, even the ones I hadn't used on the job. I wanted them to get the digital training I never got.
I packed my syllabus full of digital tools: Photoshop, Wordpress, Twitter, and Facebook, obviously. But I also added other, newer tools like Storify, which was released as a beta in spring of 2011. We would explore the possibility of using apps for journalism. We would have a class called Wiki, Wiki, Wiki, complete with a class wiki and an in-class exercise. I was a digital native, they were digital natives, and we were going to use a suite of some of the latest tools being used by newsrooms to become independent digital journalists right there, in class.
Including all that new technology was exciting and mostly rewarding. But it also came back to bite me in the face.
Too Many Tools is a Problem For Faculty
Working with lots of digital tools is one of the biggest issues for faculty, according to Schoology’s Global State of Digital Learning in Higher Education survey—roughly 38 percent of the faculty surveyed said that teaching and learning with multiple digital tools was one of their biggest challenges in the 2016-17 school year. That makes it the second biggest challenge that professors dealt with last year.
Faculty are using a lot of digital tools, in the classroom and out of it. Inside Higher Ed’s 2017 Survey of Faculty Attitudes on Technology found that 68 percent of faculty members and 80 percent of digital learning administrators say they like to experiment with new instructional methods and tools, and that one third of faculty are using digital courseware in class (and most of them are involved in the selection of the technology). The faculty surveyed by IHE are using a variety of digital tools: adaptive courseware, assessment tools, and plagiarism detection software are listed in that report.
There are also other, more public, technologies that make it into class. According to a 2013 study by Babson Research Group and Pearson Learning Solutions, 40 percent of faculty were using social media as a teaching tool, and although I can’t find more recent numbers, that number is bound to have risen in the past five years.
It’s a lot to manage, but early adopters get excited about the possibility of trying new technology out in class. Any new way to engage students is thrilling. I know, because I was thrilled.
What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
So much. So much can go wrong. Some of the things that happened to me were rookie mistakes; it was the first class I’d designed, and I didn't take some things into account that seem obvious in retrospect. But some of those challenges were the direct result of trying to use too many digital tools at once.
New Tools are Buggy
Have you ever had to stop a class because a tool won’t work for the lesson you’re doing? I have. Sometimes a tool works on one computer but not another. Sometimes it breaks or is unavailable. If you’re teaching with tools that are new to the market, you’re giving your students a valuable lesson in learning about how new technology intersects with your subject matter, but definitely plan for those tools to break. Explain to your class that you’re using a tool that might glitch, and have a back-up lesson ready in case things don’t go according to plan.
You’ve Got to Train Yourself
Not all faculty have access to professional development when it comes to digital tools in the classroom, especially if they’re the ones who are choosing the tools. Schoology’s survey found that over 15% percent of faculty don’t get edtech training, and 38 percent aren’t getting the time they need to learn new tools or implement teaching strategies. For every new tool I used, I gave up of hours of time at home learning and testing that tool. Sometimes, I wasn’t terribly successful.
It’s Hard to Know How to Use a Lot of Different New Tools Well
Have you just learned one new tool, an LMS, for example? Great. You’re ready for the classroom! But have you also just been trained on other technology, like a plagiarism tool and an assessment tool? Learning a lot of new tech at once can get overwhelming. I know because I was overwhelmed. I was teaching from a machine I hadn't been trained on, still learning my LMS, and trying to explain Storify to my class. It was a lot. If you possibly can, get training, and don’t get it all at once.
Logging In and Out of Different Tools in the Classroom
Gather round, friends, and you will hear the story of how my entire class learned my Twitter password. I was teaching in a journalism lab, using a projector, and we were in the middle of our course on social media. I was trying to lecture and type at the same time and typed my password in the wrong field. Oops.
Being logged in to too many things at the same time is a problem for everyone who teaches with tech. The faculty Schoology surveyed listed “consolidating various tools into one location or platform” as their second biggest priority for 2016-17. It makes sense.
Neither you nor your students want to manage lots of different logins, apps or browser tabs. Passwords get lost, for example, and that can hold up classroom activities. Or students may not want to be signed up for lots of different accounts. When as many tools as possible can be housed on one password-protected platform, learning is easier for everyone.
Getting IT on Your Side
Any faculty member who teaches with technology will probably have to work with tech support at some point, and in many cases, that’s the institution’s IT department. In some cases, the IT department is happy to help and works well with the faculty. In other cases, IT—worried about the dangers of third-party technology or students abusing resources like laptops or tablets—acts as a barrier.
Know Where Your Technical Support is Coming From
At some institutions, faculty might not have a clear idea of who to talk to about including different types of technology in a new course. It might be IT, a department head, or the vendor. It’s important to get this information up front, and then spend some time talking about the devices or software or lab time you’ll need for the course and why those things are necessary for you to teach your course. If you’re using technology you brought into the course yourself (like apps, or an application you’re testing out) have a plan for who you’ll go to for support if something goes wrong.
The Digital Divide is Real
I taught at a community college that served both extremely wealthy areas and poor areas. Not all of my students had smartphones, or their data plans couldn't support what I needed from them. Pretty much all my students in my classes texted, so I thought they’d all be able to use their phones for schoolwork.
That sort of thinking is not necessarily helpful; sometimes a student’s data plan allows texting and not data, or they have to conserve data use. Sometimes they don’t have enough space on their phones for apps. Sometimes their smartphones are old. Sometimes low-income students are using a series of prepaid burner phones.
If we want to teach tech, we have to provide options for these students. The next semester the course ran, I worked with both IT and my department head to get Flip cameras and audio recorders, so students who needed to do so could sign them out during the video segments.
The Joy and Pain of Teaching with Apps
Apps are awesome. They let us do so much on our devices, and for an independent journalist, a wide range of apps means you’re a mobile newsroom. You can snap photos, take video, record audio, edit media, record your interviews and get them transcribed, and write a piece on your phone with the right apps. That kind of journalism needs to be taught. But there is a problem—there are a LOT of apps.
Some are excellent. Some are terrible. Some are free. Some are paid. Some are wonderful but only work on the iPhone. Some were great but are no longer available. Finding apps that work for every student is a challenge, and in my initial course, I lost a lot of time researching apps that would work for everyone, only to find that some students couldn't access or use them.
If I had to do it over, I wouldn't teach a specific app—apps change fast—rather, I would teach about a kind of app (recorders, video editing, etc.) and let the students pick the ones that worked best for them. After all, that is how they’ll have to cope with changing tech in the field.
You Cannot Know Everything and That’s Okay
I’ve got some tough love for you, instructor: you’re going to make mistakes. And sometimes, your students will know more about new technology than you do. I got schooled a few times about the specifics of an app I was using for journalism but my students were using in some other capacity.
But here’s some good news: unless you are specifically teaching a type of technology, you’re not in that classroom to be a software expert, and that goes double when you’re teaching with a lot of different digital tools, and triple when those tools are new to the market. You’re there to teach a course, and the digital tools are there to support you and your lesson plan. If you make a mistake, it’s fine. Move on.
Here’s what I learned from that class. When you use a lot of digital tools, you’re setting up a risky situation, but you’re also trying something new and exciting and worthwhile. Not every tool will pay off and you will occasionally embarrass yourself and have to change your password.
If you make a mistake, one of your tools fails, or a student says you’re not Snapchatting correctly in front of the whole class, set your ego aside, learn from that moment, and then go back to teaching those students what they need to know. Teaching on the bleeding edge of technology is just that: teaching on the edge. You’re bound to wobble a little.