Teaching with Digital Technology: In-Class Applications

Last month, the Teaching Tools section kicked off a series of posts exploring how digital technologies can be used in teaching, particularly in anthropology courses. We promised to bring in considerations of both advocacy and resistance to digital technology, keeping a sharp focus on the principle that a technology is only worth using if it engages students in their learning, enhances learning goals, and extends learning beyond the constraints of the classroom (Liz Kolb’s Triple E Framework).

In this post we take a look at some ways of bringing digital technology to bear on familiar elements of classroom teaching: lectures, collaboration, peer assessment, and other class activities. Some of these ideas come from our own experience, while other tools were mentioned to us by our colleagues or found online. We do not unequivocally advocate for all of the technologies and resources listed below; rather, we invite you to give them a try and see what works for you!

Student Response Systems

A great way to introduce a new activity into the classroom is to use live polls and instant response systems. Some colleges and universities provide special equipment called a classroom response system (also known as “clickers” or live audience participation) such as this one by Turning Technologies. In preparation for a class, a teacher needs to create a poll with multiple-choice questions which can be incorporated into a PowerPoint presentation. During the class, the clickers are distributed among students who then click a button corresponding to their chosen answer. The response system hardware connected to the teacher’s laptop collects real-time analytics and projects them to the class.

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Clickers. Photo by Universidad de Navarra.

Importantly, students remain anonymous: every student can see what the majority of his or her classmates believe to be the right answer, but nobody can see individual answers.

So how would you use it? For example, in a medical anthropology class, before giving a lecture on medicalization, you might want to find out the extent to which your students are familiar with this concept. To accomplish this, you can administer a quick poll asking students to choose one of three options: “I know what this concept means and can explain it,” “I have heard this concept but won’t be able to explain it,” or “I have not heard of this concept at all.” Depending on the results, you can decide how much time you want to dedicate to this topic. Using live polls in this way can help you to make lectures more time-efficient.

However, it is possible that your institution does not provide a classroom response system, or that the type of available equipment does not work well with your laptop (for example, with a Mac). In this case, you can make use of online polling resources such as Easy Polls, Poll Everywhere, or Learning Catalytics, which work through students’ personal devices such as phones and laptops. With Poll Everywhere, you create a poll online and receive a code that you need to give to your students in order to activate their participation. The students simply enter the code on their phones via a regular text message and then proceed to answering multiple-choice questions by typing A, B, C, or D, depending on the number of answer options. Learning Catalytics is a more comprehensive platform with features that allow for open-ended questions and group work. For example, during a lecture, you can enable the button “I don’t understand,” which students can click if they do not follow the material. You will get instantaneous feedback on where the students are struggling and can immediately respond by spending more time on a difficult concept. This is also a great way of encouraging the participation of students who are reluctant to raise hands or to show that they do not understand.

These websites usually have free and paid accounts, which differ in terms of poll settings, visualization options, and sometimes the number of participants (Poll Everywhere permits creating free polls for only forty students in higher-education classrooms, whereas Easy Polls seems to allow for an unlimited number of participants). Another consideration to keep in mind is the quality of mobile phone connection: if your class meets in the basement or in a building with no stable signal, then you will have to find a different polling option.

Certainly, asking the students to use their phones and tablets during class can result in distraction caused by checking emails and texting. From this perspective, the use of clickers may be a better option. In any case, irrespective of whether you choose to distribute clickers or to rely on students’ devices, a live response system can be both rewarding for the instructor and highly appreciated by students.

Social Media

WhatsApp, Twitter, Pinterest, SnapChat, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Tumblr, and other social media platforms are not just tools for staying connected with friends but can also contribute to effective learning. Social media platforms can help to facilitate discussions and other activities during class, encourage learning between class meetings, and enhance online teaching.

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Social media applications for teaching. Photo by mkhmarketing.

WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and other instant messaging apps are a great tool for class communication. They include the function of creating group chats to which you can add your students and then send them class updates, reminders, and other timely information. They can also be used for exchanging a variety of media, such as images, videos, and audio messages. The advantage of using instant messaging apps is that students may check them more frequently than emails. Moreover, texting is considered by some to be a more egalitarian form of communication, enabling a more friendly class atmosphere and encouraging collaboration. In fact, the use of different media for class communication can itself be a learning subject, for example, as a way to introduce the concept of media ideologies (Gershon 2010) if you teach linguistic or media anthropology. Instant messaging apps have also been shown to be effective as a peer assessment tool (Güler 2016).

Along with many advantages come serious challenges in using messaging apps: studies show that students may expect that teaching would be available 24/7 or may use the group chat to circulate volumes of irrelevant information (Bouhnik and Deshen 2014). Moreover, it is important to keep in mind that you are sharing your private information such as your phone number (for WhatsApp) or your Facebook username. The obligatory use of social media can put at risk students who try to keep a low profile about their gender identity, immigration status, or sexual orientation and may not want to participate in open public discussions. Certainly, many social media platforms like Facebook have an option of creating closed groups whose members do not have to be Facebook friends and will not have direct access to one another’s profiles. Yet, as a teacher you are responsible for making classrooms safe, which also includes digital safety.

From this perspective, Twitter is different because it was created as an open public board rather than personal communication technology. Perhaps that is why Twitter seems to be the ultimate favorite among social media tools in teaching, with many studies and discussions of its pedagogical application (see, for example, this post on teaching with Twitter). You can create a classroom hashtag and invite students to tag any relevant material. During discussion, you can project tweets on the classroom screen so that students can contribute their thoughts and see what their classmates are thinking. Based on our experience, this is particularly effective during guided debates (“Nature versus Nurture,” “Structure versus Agency,” “Belief versus Knowledge,” etc.) in which many students are eager to share their opinions but time constraints do not permit voicing all responses out loud.

Pinterest is another promising resource for teaching, especially when it comes to curated multimedia collections. Pinterest allows its users to create digital collages, with the possibility of commenting on and sharing collected images and videos. In a recent study, Nick Pearce and Sarah Learmonth (2013) have evaluated the use of Pinterest in an introductory anthropology class at Durham University and found that Pinterest could be used to develop students’ critical thinking and learning in a nonlinear way.

Another great repository of educational material delivered in various formats is YouTube. Together with Twitter and Pinterest, YouTube channels can be incorporated into “the modern version” of a traditional reading list" (Pearce and Tan 2013, 140). For example, if students struggle with the concept of intersectionality, you could direct them to select YouTube videos and even ask students to write up a paragraph on what they had learned. In our teaching, we have experimented with assigning videos as required “readings” but have had mixed results. Some students responded very positively, stressing that short videos help them to visualize a difficult concept, while other students did not like being assigned to watch a video, especially when they had to watch them several times in order to find specific information.

Presentation Tools

PowerPoint is a default presentation software for many educators but it has many alternatives. Google Slides is a free web-based application which is well integrated with other Google products. It is simple, user-friendly, and compatible with Microsoft Office. A great feature of Google Slides is that multiple people can collaborate on a project, accessing it simultaneously through Google Drive. This instant collaboration tool makes Google Slides a great application for learning. For example, as a final assignment, you could divide students into groups and ask them to make presentations via Google Slides. By adding yourself to each group, you will be able to see the groups’ progress and even track individual students’ contributions to the project.

PowerPoint, Google Slides, as well as Apple Keynote, Piktochart, and many other applications, are similar in the sense that they produce linear slide-by-slide presentations. In contrast, there are different presentation tools like Prezi, which offer a very different experience for the viewer. Prezi is an web-based application that allows users to create beautiful, dynamic presentations. Instead of sequential slides, Prezi uses the structure of an interactive map, so that the presenter can zoom in to focus on specific points or zoom out to demonstrate a broader picture. As Wikipedia describes it, Prezi is “a visual storytelling software.”

PowToon takes a step in a different direction and turns presentations into animated explainer videos. You can use available templates, images, and music or create your own video from scratch. If you are not a fan of animation but want to make a video presentation, then Panopto is your best option. With Panopto you can record yourself giving a lecture and then incorporate the recording into a presentation. This is a particularly useful technology if you know that you will be away from campus on a certain week (perhaps attending a conference) and you cannot find a substitute. Just record yourself, add graphs and notes, and upload it to Panopto. Your students will be able to watch it, review it at any time, and even search words through the slides.

Conclusion

We hope that this overview will help you to make an informed decision regarding the possibility of using different digital tools in your classrooms. In our next post, we will cover technologies designed to  help you organize your teaching outside the classroom, such as learning management systems and grading tools.

References

Bouhnik, Dan, and Mor Deshen. 2014. “WhatsApp Goes to School: Mobile Instant Messaging between Teachers and Students.” Journal of Information Technology Education: Research 13: 217–31.

Gershon, Ilana. 2010. “Media Ideologies: An Introduction.Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 20, no. 2: 283–93.

Güler, Çetin. 2016. “Use of WhatsApp in Higher Education: What’s Up with Assessing Peers Anonymously?Journal of Educational Computing Research 55, no. 2: 272–89.

Pearce, Nick, and Sarah Learmonth. 2013. “Learning Beyond the Classroom: Evaluating the Use of Pinterest in Learning and Teaching in an Introductory Anthropology Class.” Journal of Interactive Media in Education 2.

_____, and Elaine Tan. 2013. “Open Education Videos in the Classroom: Exploring the Opportunities and Barriers to the Use of YouTube in Teaching Introductory Sociology.” In Using Social Media Effectively in the Classroom: Blogs, Wikis, Twitter, and More, edited by Kay Kyeong-Ju Seo, 132–47. New York: Routledge.