Teaching Well Using Technology: Understanding the Technology Learning Cycle

When I came to Notre Dame’s recent workshop on teaching well using technology, I quickly noticed that participants demonstrated varying degrees of technical savvy. But each left having learned how to learn more, thanks to the advice presenters Chris Clark and Bruce Spitzer shared. Spitzer described the “technology learning cycle” that educators experience as they progress from hearing about a new tool to finding new uses for it and sharing them with others.

“Chris and I haven’t so much perfected our technology skills as we have our ‘learning how to learn skills,’” Spitzer said, as he detailed the five stages of the cycle, which are:

  1. Awareness
  2. Exploration
  3. Learning
  4. Application
  5. Sharing

To see how this works, take an application like Google Forms — a cloud-based tool that allows users to sign in and create surveys they can share. When people complete those surveys, the answers are automatically placed in a spreadsheet the survey creator can access from any web browser.

An educator might begin with a general awareness that Google offers such a tool. They explore it by reading up on how it works before learning how to manipulate it. Next, they try it in their classroom —maybe to share a survey on the first day of class and gauge their students’ knowledge levels. Having applied it, they start thinking about other ways they might use it — perhaps to distribute quizzes or course evaluations — and they begin sharing this with colleagues. Over time, they move from beginner to advocate.

That, practically, is how the technology learning cycle works, with one caveat: Educators are busy people, and they can’t expect to become experts on every technology. Sometimes, Spitzer said, the trick is identifying a problem that needs solving, and turning to a more tech-savvy person for a solution. So rather than researching Google Forms on their own, some people might begin by asking how they could share surveys in class, then rely on support staff to provide the answer, an approach that makes sense for a professor focused on researching, publishing, and teaching.

“You’re all very highly trained in something,” Spitzer said. “It might not be computer applications, and that’s OK. Seek out the people who are trained to get the help you need to do what you want to do.”

That’s a solid approach for an aspiring academic: Know how to learn tools that help you teach better, and remember that sometimes the best approach is asking a specialist to provide you with a tool that meets a particular need.


Constant Connection, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Alerts

When I graduated from Notre Dame not so long ago, technology was a far cry from what we experience today. Dorm rooms and off-campus dwellings had landlines. Internet connections were slower. And AOL Instant Messenger was the closest thing we had to a social network, a place for private chats among friends and the occasional away message.

In the classroom, my professors might use a dusty chalkboard or a projector that risked overheating, and plenty relied on nothing more than lecture notes and their own voice. Video clips and PowerPoint presentations made occasional appearances. Outside of the classroom, my fellow students and I made dedicated trips to do research, wandering the library’s stacks to locate relevant books and camping out in computer labs to write research papers.

Yes, 2001 was a simpler, slower, less connected time. Multi-tasking meant socializing on the second floor of the library while I studied with classmates, and relatively few distractions vied for our attention.

Looking back, it all seems so quaint. A little more than a decade after I graduated, technology is now everywhere at my alma mater, in purses, pockets, and personal bags all across campus, changing the way people think and live. Laptops are ubiquitous, and tablets are catching on fast. Calling mom or dad several states away while walking across the quad is no big deal. Facebook status updates and texts pour into smartphones, pulling at students whether they’re in class or on their way to the dining hall. Apple and Android devices abound, and everyone has WiFi everywhere and all the time.

Classrooms are changing too. PowerPoint presentations multiply, web browsers display video clips from YouTube, and university-issued iPads appear in some classes. Laptops increasingly replace pen and paper as the preferred note-taking tools. Everything is high-speed, high-tech, and highly networked.

Today’s technology is fast and flashy and irresistible. We crave it and can’t live without it, even though it pings us with constant alerts and updates and distractions. We look up from our phones to avoid bumping into people as we walk, and navigate the rabbit hole of YouTube, with its suggested videos luring us back for just one more fix. I say “we” because those of us who grew up in a less connected time are as hopelessly addicted as today’s college students. A few weeks ago, I joined campus colleagues in live-tweeting a workshop on new uses for mobile technology, an event that fed our growing proclivity for constant updates. The day ended with us voting in a real-time poll, thumbs racing across our touch-screen phones.

Yes, it often feels like we just can’t help ourselves. The tail is wagging the dog, and our machines are using us. And I, for one, welcome our new technological overlords. Maybe my alert-addled brain isn’t thinking clearly, and maybe I can’t see through the fog of Twitter mentions, but I think we’re on to something. Our constant connectivity isn’t all bad. Sure, our attention spans aren’t what they used to be, but did I mention we’re all so connected? I would have killed to have Google Docs and Wikispaces and real-time search engines when I was an undergrad, and I’m glad today’s undergrads have these tools.

Connection spawns collaboration, and suddenly students aren’t limited to their own insights and those shared in their immediate classrooms. They can research so much faster, converse with thought leaders from across the planet, and share their own insights on the platform of their choice. Looking back on it, I had a really sheltered education. Imagine how much more I might have learned if I’d had all these tools as a freshman.

That said, we need to disconnect once in awhile to make sense of the flood of information our gadgets so reliably bring us. Linear thought is still important, and I need to carve out some time to think more about all of this, and what it means for education today. Right after I check my Twitter feed, of course.

Using Digital Technologies to Promote Active Learning

Several decades ago, Paulo Freire attacked the traditional “banking” concept of education — the idea that faculty simply transmitted knowledge to students who stored it as if they were passive containers. Instead, Freire argued, they should treat students as equals capable of active learning.

Now, more than ever, educators have an opportunity to realize Freire’s vision. By teaching well with digital technologies, faculty can help students connect, collaborate, and create, allowing them to take ownership of their own learning.

Connecting is a central part of today’s online experience. The rise of Web 2.0 technologies several years ago allowed users to move beyond such basic communication tools as email and instant messaging to find people who share their interests and build relationships with them.

This is an important distinction. Where early web technologies enabled people to communicate primarily with friends and family, today’s networks encourage discovery and new relationships. Twitter, for instance, helps people find others who share their interests and begin conversations with them. By using hashtags, Twitter’s simple indexing tool, college students can connect with thought leaders and fellow students, expanding their intellectual circles beyond the reach of their classrooms and campuses.

Progressive educators like Monica Rankin at the University of Texas at Dallas recognize the value of fostering such connections and encourage students to use tools like Twitter throughout the semester — training them to seek out connections that will broaden and deepen their intellectual inquiry.

Collaborating forms a key part of today’s Web. For example, Wikispaces and Google Docs allow teams of students to share assets and work with each other and their professors on projects. These tools embrace a wiki-style mentality that encourages teamwork and allows individuals to build on the insights of colleagues rather than simply relying on their own intelligence.

At Notre Dame, thanks to the encouragement of staff technology evangelists like Chris Clark, classes have begun leveraging these tools. Students in an Irish history class, for instance, produced a collaborative project, uploading text and images to create a far richer portrait of the medieval period they studied than any of them could have created on their own.

Creating content plays an increasingly important role on the Web. For years, blogs have given a voice to anyone with a Web browser and a willingness to write. Now, new tools such as Apple’s iBooks Author, released earlier this year, take self-publishing to the next level, allowing people to create free or affordable multimedia books. Together, these technologies provide students with a platform to craft work they can share with a broader audience. Without having to develop advanced design and coding skills, students can focus on creating great content that can start wider conversations.

When students connect, collaborate, and create, they become active learners, realizing the vision Freire outlined before the advent of the Web. The 20th-century ideal he articulated can now take on new life, thanks to 21st-century technologies. Faculty everywhere should take full advantage of these tools as they welcome the next generation of students into a growing community of learners.

Teaching Well Using Technology: Reactions from Grad Students

I think Notre Dame’s recent workshop on teaching and technology provided a great look at some ways educators can incorporate new tools into their classrooms. But why take my word for it? Chances are you’d rather hear from the graduate students who attended. These upcoming educators will spend countless hours teaching in college classrooms, where they’ll have a direct impact on students’ learning.

With that in mind, I want to include reactions from a couple of these graduate students. Corbitt Kerr is one of them. A civil engineering student who’s taught a computer-aided design class, he favors a mix of high-tech and low-tech learning options.

Kerr was curious to learn more about Google Forms, which allow educators to collect feedback from students and offer convenient online quizzes. Overall, he said, it looked like a good fit for his teaching style.

Monica Mata, a theology graduate student, was eager to learn how she could make her classes more visual. Some of her students have complained she relies too much on whiteboard notes to communicate information. Occasionally, some have fallen asleep in class. And while Mata pushes her students to learn, she also realizes that it’s helpful to meet them halfway.

She watched with curiosity as Chris Clark and Bruce Spitzer, the workshop’s facilitators, demonstrated how to used Prezi, a cloud-based program known for its zooming-style presentations and “blank canvas” approach to creating sharable content.

After trying Prezi for herself, she decided that for some projects, she would offer students a choice between writing a paper and giving a presentation. For some students, she said, a presentation is simply a more engaging learning outlet. For her, using technology well is a way to reach student who have grown accustomed to having digital tools at their fingertips.

“I think we need it because students want it,” she said. “That was the one thing students were unanimous about — we need more technology in this class.”

Give Faculty Credit for Student-Oriented Publishing

Colleges and universities should embrace the opportunities presented by new digital publishing tools and give their faculty credit for publishing class-oriented materials. Although such a move would put schools at odds with a tradition that favors long-form dissertations read by a small cross-section of academia, it would help students learn more effectively and allow faculty to make a greater impact through their teaching.

Schools should take note of recent developments such as the release of Apple’s iBooks Author, a tool that allows educators to create attractive multimedia books and publish them for free. Although iBooks is the first major tool that promotes such ease of publishing, others will no doubt follow, making it more practical for faculty to quickly create and share content customized for a specific class.

Educational institutions should take advantage of this emerging trend by adjusting their promotion and tenure policies to give faculty credit for publishing content that benefits students and may easily reach a wider audience. Rather than focusing solely on work that is critically acclaimed but narrowly read, faculty should embrace their role as teachers seek to reach their students. But they cannot do this without support from progressive institutions who understand the importance of pedagogy.

At a time when more consumers are questioning the value of higher education, schools would be wise to embrace this approach and demonstrate that they can make a significant impact in the intellectual lives of students.

Teaching Well Using Technology: A Look at Key Tools

The scene in the basement of Notre Dame’s business college Saturday fit the day’s theme: Teaching well with technology.  High-definition monitors decorated the room’s walls, offering participants a look at the cloud-based tools they’d spend the day exploring. Banks of networked PCs allowed them to dive into these tools, or browse the workshop’s agenda and resources, which were posted online. And technophiles Chris Clark (Notre Dame) and Bruce Spitzer (IUSB) brimmed with enthusiasm as they presented and took questions.

For the next several hours, Clark and Spitzer led participants on a tour of tools aimed at helping them to encourage active learning, craft engaging presentations, and gather data from students to enrich their teaching methods.

Clark and Spitzer stressed the importance of a planned approach that begins with defining learning goals and student assessments, continues with determining teaching strategies, and concludes by picking the appropriate supporting technologies. With that in mind, here’s a quick look at some key technologies they covered.

Active Learning

Tools like Wikispaces and Google Docs promote active learning by encouraging collaboration among students and teachers. Wikispaces in particular allows classes to build websites that can serve as knowledge bases and shared project spaces. For instance, an Irish history class at Notre Dame used Wikispaces to gather text and images for a project, and a Notre Dame professor is using it to create a searchable online transcript of a Supreme Court case she’s studying.


Prezi provides a cloud-based alternative to PowerPoint for educators who prefer a “blank canvas” approach rather than a slide-based one. Its zooming animations incorporate multimedia, including images and embedded video.  SlideShare allows presenters to post their material online — ideal for a class in which the professor wants to share resources.

Gathering Data

Google Forms, Poll Everywhere, and SurveyMonkey enable teachers to quickly collect information from students. Educators are using them for everything from demographic surveys to quizzes that measure whether students absorbed key ideas shared in a lecture or presentation.

Plenty of Options

I left the workshop with a couple of big ideas:

  1. Educators have an abundance of free cloud-based tools they can use to help their students learn better.
  2. Teachers don’t have to be geeks themselves — they can rely in part on the expertise of support professionals like Clark and Spitzer as they navigate the wealth of new offerings.

I’ll have more to share from the workshop in upcoming blog posts, where I’ll include reaction from graduate students who attended the workshop and talk about how educators can prepare themselves to be more technologically literate.

For now, I continue to be impressed by the proliferation of tools that can support better teaching and learning, and I’m optimistic for the future of pedagogy in higher education.

Teaching Well Using Technology: Strategy and Tactics

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m looking forward to Saturday’s classroom technologies workshop at Notre Dame. The event will focus on several collaborative tools aimed at boosting classroom engagement and active learning.

I’m impressed by the strategic way in which workshop organizers approach technology. Chris Clark, assistant director of the Kaneb Center for Teaching and Learning, believes it should play a supporting role.

“We could use technology to help make an active learning strategy more effective or efficient — for example, use a smartphone app to gather opinion data,” he says. “We could use a technology that helps students collaborate more effectively or efficiently — for example, have a project group use a Google Site as their online headquarters for storing documents, conducting discussions, etc.”

Clark is quick to point out that educators should adopt technologies that make sense for their classes and their particular teaching style.

“I would tell them to always start by determining what students need to learn and to always keep that foremost in their thoughts. Technology can very often help, but in some situations it means unnecessary extra work for students or teachers,” he says. “On the other hand, it is also important to know what your technology options are. It’s common for faculty to be unaware of tools that could be of tremendous use. Some faculty enjoy following technology developments, but another solution is to consult someone who keeps up on such developments.”

I’m intrigued by Clark’s argument. In his view, technology should be easy to use, and should not complicate an educator’s job. I’ll be interested to see how the graduate students and faculty members attending the workshop have experienced technology so far, and how the workshop might change their approach to it.