How can you use technology to improve your teaching and create a better learning experience for your students?
I talked with Dr. Kortni Alston about that question.
Alston, assistant professor at North Carolina A&T State University, discussed strategies she uses that have been particularly helpful when she adapted her teaching during the pandemic.
Alston earned her MBA from Morgan State University and her Ph.D. in Communication at the University of Florida, writing her dissertation on positive psychology issues related to job satisfaction.
Prior to teaching in higher ed, Alston was a television reporter, a director of news and public affairs for public radio, and was director of external affairs for the Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta.
Alston considers her academic and professional experience to be a great combination to help her “leverage the power of technology” in her teaching and in her professional life.
Positive potential of social media
Alston said that social media can make life less isolating for faculty, providing them with interaction with colleagues they know and meeting other faculty members.
“I love what social media provides us,” Alston said. “I see posts on social media from colleagues and other faculty and see how they are dealing with the challenges of teaching now.”
Alston teaches communications courses, helping students prepare for a range of careers, in business, media, government and non-profit organizations.
“It’s important for the students to be able to use social media as media professionals. So they need practical skills to know how to use and leverage Facebook, Twitter and Instagram,” she said.
Facebook Groups for students, for faculty
Facebook Groups have been teaching tool for Alston even before the move to online teaching due to the pandemic.
“I always create a Facebook Group for each of my classes,” Alston said. “The Facebook Group creates a greater sense of community for the class. The group is a way for the students to check in with each other and for me to check in on them – both when classes were face-to-face and then when classes went totally online.”
Alston hosts a Facebook Group meeting for each class each week, which happens in real time.
She lets the students know in advance about the group meeting and the topic for the meeting.
“I promote the meeting in lectures on Blackboard (North Carolina A&T’s course management system) and send an announcement through email. I want them to get excited about our meeting and not feel isolated. The meetings give them a place to share,” Alston said. “Most of my students are first generation college students and sometimes have fewer resources in their own communities to lean on.”
Alston uses each meeting as a time to talk about media examples and explain the whys of it and the management decisions involved. Students can ask questions, and Alston can ask her own questions to see how students are doing.
The Facebook Group session is a multi-screen event for Alston with her using her laptop as her camera and then using her iPad to look for questions and comments that the students are sharing online.
“I continually stress the why – why are we using this social media,” Alston said. “It’s important for students to understand the why so they have buy-in to the value of using social media as part of class.”
Alston said that Facebook Groups formed by academics after the pandemic hit were a great resource for her.
“They were so insightful for me,” she said. “I could see what faculty were doing all over the country – really all over the world. They helped me develop strategies for my teaching.”
Meetings with Zoom and Calendly
Zoom has become one of Alston’s technology tools, as North Carolina A&T has provided Zoom for faculty and students due to the pandemic. Alston uses Zoom for meetings with her students and with her research colleagues.
“Zoom allows me to have that in-person feel but virtually,” Alston said.
She and her students use the Calendy app, which lets her students schedule (reschedule and cancel) meetings with Alston. Alston used Calendy with her students before the pandemic to encourage them to learn time management skills – learning to set up and manage their own calendars and to schedule student hours with her.
Alston explained that the university rebranded the concept of office hours, renaming them student hours.
“That helped students recognize that these meeting times were for them,” Alston said. “I encourage them to create the agenda for the meeting. I ask them to decide what concern they would like to talk with me about or what course material they don’t understand. Sometimes, they want advice about how to manage their course schedules.”
With the pandemic, students have had additional concerns to discuss with Alston. How will going back home affect their course work if they are helping family members who are sick or having to work to help support the family?
“These Zoom meetings allow the students to share, and I am able to offer some advice,” Alston said.
“My background in positive psychology has helped me create an environment where students can thrive. We create together and develop a positive mindset.”
Alston is the co-host with Dr. Stephanie Dean of the podcast Thriving in Toxicity. The podcast helps individuals thrive in the workplace and life.
Dr. Alston is the founder of the Kourting Happiness Movement, which is a community committed to understanding how to cultivate a positive life at work and home.