Lectures come alive: Using technology effectively in the classroom

by Ginger Blackstone, M.A.
Ph.D. student, University of Florida

When it comes to the 21st Century classroom environment, lesson plans full of lectures and pop quizzes are often inadequate for engaging and retaining students’ attention.  In today’s electronically-saturated world, it’s all about technology.  Instructors looking for that upper edge to connect with their students can utilize a wide array of online resources and hi-tech gadgetry to grab students’ attention and keep it.  

Why is technology such a big deal?  The proper use of technology can enhance the learning experience by incorporating more of our senses, bringing “boring” topics to life, and helping to break social barriers that may keep shy or introverted students from participating in class discussions. Indeed, Dr. Curtis Bonk, a professor of Instructional Systems Technology at Indiana University, argues that instructors have an ethical obligation to incorporate technology in their courses. Not only do today’s students expect it, but so do their future hiring managers.

That said, many of us have experienced how the misuse of technology can be equally ineffective: cluttered PowerPoints with too many tiny words for the audience to read, lengthy video clips that lull viewers into a zombie-like state, malfunctioning hardware or software that steamrolls even the most well-constructed presentations, and so forth. The key to engaging the audience is to know how to properly use technology. (And always have a Plan B if something goes awry.)
But let’s face it.  Incorporating technology can be a challenge.  Not all programs are user-friendly.  It takes time to learn new hardware and software tools, and even more time to be proficient.  Also, technology is constantly changing.  Today’s cool new thing will generate yawns in a couple of years (perhaps even a few months).  Keeping up with the latest tools and trends requires a proactive approach.  Some of us don’t navigate change very well.  And looking at course construction from a practical point-of-view, no instructor has the time to rebuild every lesson plan from scratch every single semester. 

Fortunately, instructors don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time to have a measured effect on the classroom environment.  Even a few carefully selected tools can increase the level of instructor-student engagement.  And a few active sites have made it their mission to keep up with the current trends in classroom technology so you don’t have to manage it on your own.  Below are some of my favorite resources, and fortunately, most of them are free under educational licenses.

Technology Attention Grabbers:

  • Class Dojo (http://www.classdojo.com/) is really designed for the elementary classroom, but it’s still a fun program that teachers can use to reward students.  Teachers create a little character for each student in the class, then distribute badges for things like attendance, good behavior, or class participation.
  • Clickers can be an effective way to solicit responses from a class, especially in large classes with hundreds of people where discussion is challenging.  Students are given a multiple-choice question with a number of options and they file their answers using the remote device.  The instructor can then call up the live responses on the spot to gauge students’ comprehension.  The University of Florida Center for Instructional Technology and Training (http://citt.ufl.edu/tools/clickers-classroom-response-systems/) offers a number of tips and recommendations on clicker usage, including details on how students go about purchasing a clicker, and what steps instructors need to take to incorporate the technology into their classrooms and grading systems.
  • Poll Everywhere (http://www.polleverywhere.com/) utilizes the same response interactivity as clickers, but students use their SmartPhones, tablets, or laptops instead of having to purchase a clicker.  Instructors may also build polls that utilize images or short answers.

Using Media Effecitvely:

  • Video can be a powerful tool, but its misuse can take away from the learning environment.  According to David Denning, with InNATURE Productions and the University of Victoria (https://www.ebiomedia.com/downloads/VidPM.pdf), video should illustrate complicated ideas that are hard to demonstrate otherwise.  It can also be used to show specific examples to reinforce points of the lesson.  Instructors should avoid using lengthy clips that substitute, rather than enhance, student-instructor interaction.
  • The Economics of Seinfeld (http://yadayadayadaecon.com/) is a website that utilizes video brilliantly.  It was assembled by three economics professors who incorporated scenes from Seinfeld to illustrate larger concepts of economics.
  • Wondershare Video Converter (http://www.wondershare.com/pro/video-converter-ultimate.html) allows users to “rip” and edit video clips from DVDs and websites that can be inputted directly into presentations.  The program also allows users to convert one type of video file to another.  There is a cost for the full version, but I have found it invaluable for constructing classroom presentations, especially in media-based courses.  I also love the ability to trim a clip to exactly the portion relevant to the lesson.
  • Music can be a great tool in the classroom when used effectively.  Consider playing an energetic song as students file into the classroom, or a more calming song under a group activity.  According to Chris Brewer of LifeSounds Educational Services  (http://education.jhu.edu/PD/newhorizons/strategies/topics/Arts%20in%20Education/brewer.htm), the right tune at the right time can help in a number of ways, including creating an atmosphere conducive to learning, energizing classroom activities, and helping with memory retention.

Technology Discussion Tools:

  • Twitter (https://twitter.com/) can be used in a variety of ways.  Instructors can assign a hashtag to a course and encourage students to post responses live during a lecture.  In U.S. News and World Report‘s education portal (http://www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/articles/2011/05/24/5-unique-uses-of-twitter-in-the-classroom), Ryan Lytle highlighted other unique uses of Twitter in Higher Ed courses, including creating brands, reaching out to experts, practicing concise storytelling, and establishing a class bulletin board system.
  • Today’s Meet (https://todaysmeet.com/)  allows instructors to create a more private forum for online response sharing that disappears after a specified duration.
  • WikiSpaces (http://www.wikispaces.com/) creates a private, more permanent space where students and the instructor can share posts.  Participants can also upload documents or collaborate on projects.  There’s also a calendar feature.

File Sharing & Storage:

  • Dropbox (https://www.dropbox.com/) is an online file retrieval and sharing system, similar to a cloud.  Students can upload class projects to the course Dropbox that can be accessed by others for grading or collaboration purposes.  It’s also a great backup system that allows users to retrieve files from any device with Internet access.
  • WeTransfer (https://www.wetransfer.com/) allows users to send larger files up to 2GB via email.
  • Free Compressor (http://www.freecompressor.com/) allows users to compress large files in order to maximize storage and file management.

Technology to Enable Presentation Sharing:

  • Screen Leap (http://www.screenleap.com) allows instructors to share their computer screen with others by projecting it onto a website.  Participants can watch a presentation as it unfolds live.  This is great for large lecture halls where not everybody can see the projector clearly.
  • Presentation.io (https://presentation.io/) also allows users to share a PowerPoint or other presentation live with others, but presenters can also incorporate audio or HD video.
  • Padlet (http://padlet.com/) allows users to design and create pages with imagery and text.

Technology Strategies with Headlines & Trends:

  • 10×10 (http://www.tenbyten.org/) utilizes the RSS feeds from a number of world wide news organizations to generate a display of the top trending words and pictures for each hour of the day.  There’s also a history function that allows users to see what was trending as far back as November 2004.
  • Show Mapping Worlds (http://show.mappingworlds.com/) illustrates world wide trends and data information by enlarging or shrinking nations to match the numbers.
  • Newsmap (http://newsmap.jp/) illustrates the top news headlines trending on the Internet in real time
  • Moat (http://www.moat.com/) allows users to type in a brand name and the site will retrieve all the Internet advertising currently promoting that brand

Technology Ideas & Inspiration:

  • Classroom 2.0 (http://www.classroom20.com/) is an online community of instructors at all levels of education who share their latest tools and challenges.  Also, there are links to scores of different websites and tools designed to enhance the learning experience.
  • Free Tech 4 Teachers (http://www.freetech4teachers.com/) is a highly active blog from high school Social Studies teacher Richard Byrne with the sole purpose of informing teachers about new technologies for education.
  • University of Florida Center for Instructional Technology and Training (http://citt.ufl.edu/tool-box/) has a big toolbox of goodies for course design, rubrics, instruction, presentations, and much more.

Ginger Blackstone is a student in Mass Communication Teaching (MMC 6930). You can reach her – gblackstone (at) ufl (dot) edu

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