Teaching with Technology

Reflections on Technology in Teaching

I sit back. I’ve just finished grading the final project, a “re-mediation,” requiring the students to return to a previous project’s topic but in a new genre and medium. And that’s not all: the students were also required to post this Project #5, along with Projects #2 and #4, on a personal website that demonstrates consciousness of cyber ethos. I asked my students to do a lot—too much?—in our six weeks together: five major projects and ten minor ones, not to mention our daily in-class activities. All twenty-five participants in this course—the 24 freshmen and I—are exhausted. Was it worth it? As an instructor, did my students’ learning increase thanks to the constant stream of feedback I provided daily via Canvas and my exacting criteria for multimodal compositions? As students, was the expansion of their rhetorical horizons worth the hassle of learning how to use Piktochart, WordPress, iMovie, and other programs?

At the outset of my English 15 class in Summer 2017, I believed all the technological demands on students laid out in my syllabus would be both valuable and feasible. Otherwise, I would not have designed the course as such! Now, reflecting on the course after its completion, I can affirm that, despite some bumps along the way, my students rose to the challenge: they composed rhetoric with visual, aural, and hypertextual components and they learned new programs within a short timeframe. Yes, some students would have preferred to write five traditional papers instead of two papers and three multimedia projects (and endless brief essays!), but as an instructor, I believe that my course was successful in forcing versatility and exposing students to the kinds of composition required by today’s white collar workplace.

Now, I’m going to take my own oft-repeated advice to my students: use the affordances of your medium to their fullest! Instead of continuing this reflection in the long paragraphs I usually write for academic papers, I’ll instead employ the headings afforded by WordPress, the text of which I borrow from the Teaching with Technology program’s reflection prompts.

 

WHY USE TECHNOLOGY?

 

Why should you use technology for teaching?

Unless we want to embrace the ivory tower stereotype, we need to prepare our students for the decades they will spend in the workforce.

Show me a job that only requires employees to write five-paragraph essays in Times New Roman size 12 font with 1” margins and MLA-style heading, title, and page numbers. Nope?

Now show me a job that needs employees who can communicate effectively across a variety of platforms and quickly adjust to new and uncomfortable rhetorical situations. I expect that’s the kind of job many of our graduates will be vying to land. That’s the only kind of job I’ve ever had since I started working in skilled positions in 2010, regardless of employer. Now, I’m not saying instructors should merely conduct job training, but we should be instilling the capacities into our students that will help them succeed after they exit our collegiate bubble.

 

How does using technology relate to the pedagogy of teaching?

“Pedagogy” etymologically refers to guiding children. Of course, as college instructors, we’re teaching young adults—but still, I would emphasize “guidance.” So, what does guiding mean? I believe that it means concurrently helping a student figure out the route they want to take while also pulling them into difficult territory where they’d rather not venture: a combination of tapping into existing passions in topic choice and insisting on the exploration of new possibilities in genre and medium. Exploring mediums is where technology enters pedagogy. It is a tool for intellectual exploration. Of course, there’s so much more to pedagogy—note that multimodality is only one of six learning objectives for my course:

  1. Recognize and articulate your goals as a writer.
  2. Research and respond to the ongoing conversation surrounding a topic.
  3. Apply critical thinking to your own compositions and those by other rhetors, interrogating the assumptions and evidence underlying claims.
  4. Anticipate the needs and expectations of your audience.
  5. Compose in a process of planning, drafting, revising, and editing.
  6. Employ the affordances of various mediums, whether a traditional paper or a digital medium.

Without a doubt, technology could aid with some of the other objectives—it facilitates research, helps a rhetor identify and assess their audience, and makes it easy to save multiple drafts of a developing project.

 

What are the limitations of technology as a solution for teaching and learning challenges?

  1. It can fail—wireless connection disappears and you’re out of luck.
  2. It’s only as smart as you are—and I’ve made some dumb mistakes; I recall with chagrin my students’ frustration when the deadline I’d forgotten to reset on Canvas erased the short essays they were composing online.
  3. Its seeming ease can induce laziness—in editing, why is it so much harder to concentrate on discrete words on a screen than on paper?

In short, it’s not a solution for learning any more than a hammer is a solution to a nail. Again, technology is a tool.

 

How does technology help you and the people with whom you work and teach?

We’re utterly immersed in technology. Everything that a few decades ago had to be done on paper we now do on our computers: sending messages, composing documents, filing and recordkeeping, gathering data–the list is long! In the teaching realm, some instructors stick with commenting on hard copy essays, but many of my colleagues do their grading online (as I hope is obvious by now, I’m among the latter, consolidating my teaching work on Canvas).

 

How does using technology relate to your personal and professional goals?

The sixth learning objective on my syllabus relates to myself as well as my students: Employ the affordances of various mediums, whether a traditional paper or a digital medium. As an instructor, a scholar, and an advocate for various communities, I want to take advantage of the communication platforms available—today, constantly shifting and multiplying—to work toward my lifelong objective of serving others.

 

HOW TO EVALUATE TECHNOLOGY?

 

What methods will you use to achieve your goals?

I’ve always relied on experimentation and reflection. I try something; if it succeeds, I keep using it, but if it fails, I move on to try something else. This approach certainly applies to my use of digital technology.

 

How do you know when you have achieved your goals?

The best way to know how students reacted to new technology is to ask them directly. I created a survey using the Canvas Quiz tool and offered it as extra credit to my students. That resulted in a 100% response rate! The following statistics are based on 24 responses recorded near the end of our course. I present the results most pertinent to other teachers working with technology—the entire survey contained dozens of questions about every aspect of learning. The technology questions can roughly be divided into questions about skills and questions about enjoyment.

 

Word Processor (Microsoft Word, Google Docs, Pages, etc.)

  • I know how to change margins.
    • Yes: 83%; No: 17%
  • I know how to insert a page break.
    • Yes: 75%; No: 25%
  • I know how to make a header with my surname and page number.
    • Yes: 100%; No: 0%
  • I know how to apply hanging indentation.
    • Yes: 96%; No: 4%
  • I know how to personalize the spell and grammar check tools.
    • Yes: 71%; No: 29%

 

WordPress

  • I know how to change my website’s theme (template).
    • Yes: 92%; No: 8%
  • I know the difference between a “page” and a “post.”
    • Yes: 63%; No: 38%
  • I know how to edit images I insert: their size and alignment.
    • Yes: 83%; No: 17%
  • I know how to add hyperlinks within my paragraphs.
    • Yes: 100%; No: 0%
  • I enjoyed learning how to use WordPress.
    • Yes: 63%; No: 38%

 

Infographic Program

  • I used a program new to me to create my infographic (e.g., Piktochart).
    • Yes: 20%; No: 17%
  • I enjoyed creating my infographic.
    • Yes: 63%; No: 9%
  • I think knowing how to make an infographic is a useful skill.
    • Yes: 88%; No: 13%

 

Canvas

  • I quickly learned how to use Canvas to submit assignments without much difficulty.
    • Yes: 96%; No: 4%
  • I downloaded the Canvas app on my phone.
    • Yes: 83%; No: 17%
  • I know how to control notification settings on Canvas.
    • Yes: 79%; No: 21%
  • I have my notifications set so I see new comments and grades as soon as they are posted.
    • Yes: 88%; No: 13%
  • I like using Canvas for conducting peer review and viewing peers’ comments.
    • Yes: 88%; No: 13%
  • I’d prefer to conduct peer review on paper, bringing two copies of my work to class and having my reviewers write in the margins.
    • Yes: 46%; No: 54%
  • I find it beneficial to see how my peer reviewers rate my work on the rubric.
    • Yes: 83%; No: 17%
  • I find it easy to view Mrs. Miron’s comments on my PEs [“playful essays”] and proposals.
    • Yes: 100%; No: 0%
  • I find it easy to view Mrs. Miron’s annotations on my final drafts [made in Speedgrader].
    • Yes: 96%; No: 4%
  • I like seeing how my final draft scored in different criteria on the rubric.
    • Yes: 100; No: 0%
  • I find it easy and convenient to sign up for office hours on the Canvas page.
    • Yes: 100%; No: 0%
  • I prefer using the Canvas messaging system (“inbox”) over Penn State webmail.
    • Yes: 83%; No: 17%
  • I read messages from Mrs. Miron within a few hours after she emails them.
    • Yes: 100%; No: 0%
  • I like having the option to submit in-class writing online.
    • Yes: 96%; 4%
  • I like to read my classmates’ posts when PEs [assigned posts] are submitted to discussion forums.
    • Yes: 58%; No: 42%
  • I’d find the discussion forum PEs [assigned posts] more useful if we were assigned to comment on our classmates’ work.
    • Yes: 25%; No: 75%

General Reflection

  • Overall, I am glad that several projects require me to use mediums besides the traditional paper.
    • Yes: 75% ; No: 25%
  • Overall, I like that this course strives toward paperless learning–that is, I like that almost all of our assignments are collected online, and that almost all materials from the instructor are distributed online.
    • Yes: 100%; No: 0%

The points in the General Reflection are most intriguing to me. Clearly, not every student longs to do digital composition–as the graph shows, a full quarter of them would have preferred to simply write papers.

I received some similar feedback on the teaching evaluation (SRTE)–for example, “I think I would have learned more if we focused more on essays instead of odd mediums of essays such as videos and websites.” Along the same lines, another wrote, “I would focus more on writing essays as opposed to other mediums. I felt that working with things such as iMovie and Sites made it somewhat stressful to learn the genres.” Yet another student desired “more actual writing and less time focused on technology like iMovie or websites.” (How do we define “actual writing,” I wonder?) Similarly, one recommended making “the course more essay oriented in order to help students strengthen their writing skills.” A few students commented that if they were to change the course, they would cut iMovie–“I spent most the time learning how to use it rather than actually writing and doing english [sic].” These comments certainly give me pause. Did the nontraditional mediums detract from students’ progress in “writing skills”?

Yet, returning to the General Reflection, every student apparently recognized the convenience of organizing the course online. In addition, some explicitly acknowledged the variety of mediums as a benefit of the course. For instance, on the SRTE, one student wrote, “I was challenged to develop my writing style to different arguments and into different mediums.” Another commented, “I have a blog on WordPress and learning more about how to use the site has helped me improve it. I also hope to use these skills I learned in class for my future classes and jobs.” Finally, regarding the use of discussion forums, one remarked, “I liked when I was able to see the other classmates [sic] posts under an assignment. I found that it was extremely helpful to draw my own ideas for the topic and it gave a clear example of what was required.”

Overall, reflecting on the students’ reactions to my teaching, I see changes I could make the next time I teach this course: I would make better arguments! That is, I would devote more time to arguing for why rhetoric and composition entails more than merely essay-writing. Furthermore, I would also argue for why the mediums I’ve assigned provide special rhetorical opportunities–how does WordPress offer more than a word processor? How do the visual and aural affordances of iMovie enable rhetor-audience connections beyond those possible in a silent, still paper? My goal for improvement would be rely less on the inartistic proof of authoritative force–you use this medium because it’s the assignment–and more on the artistic proofs of good reasons presented clearly.

 

Did the student behavior meet your expectations?

Ultimately, yes, in that I expected my students to learn new programs quickly, and they did it because they had to! Of course, there were some hurdles along the way.

I didn’t necessarily expect the acute discomfort some students expressed about learning new software. As an instructor, I tend to aim my focus loftily toward the learning objectives, but as students, the concern is, will failing to learn this new program destroy my grade?

A stereotype I labored under was that all students effortlessly absorb new programs—they’re always using apps on their phones, after all! Not so, as you can see from some of the results above. 25% didn’t know how to insert a page break in a word processor, and 29% didn’t know how to personalize spelling and grammar check tools.

When I taught the students how to create a site at sites.psu.edu and how to design pages in WordPress, I underestimated the learning curve. I also overestimated the students’ juggling ability, since I also asked them to learn Piktochart or another infographic program on their own—yes, that same day! They told me they needed more help with WordPress, so I rearranged the session after the initial lesson to spend more time in the computer lab.

By the time we got to iMovie, I had already seen them do fairly well with WordPress, so I wasn’t particularly anxious about their videos. But they were. I had designed Unit 4 to first focus on how to write a proposal, and only once the elements of proposal argument had been thoroughly covered, to turn to the short film medium. It turned out that my approach, intended to avoid overloading my students with the demands of both a new genre and a new medium simultaneously, actually induced stress. They knew they’d have to make a video, and they wanted to know how that video was supposed to look, feeling frustrated when several lessons passed and I still hadn’t provided example films.

In the cases of both WordPress and iMovie, I hadn’t expected those responses. I (foolishly) thought WordPress would be easy to learn within about an hour—it wasn’t. In the latter case, I thought I was doing students a favor with the way I arranged the unit, but the resulting uncertainty about the medium caused them dismay.

 

What would you recommend to a colleague?

Try to make at least one major project employ multimodal digital composition. I believe you will find what I found: especially for students who struggle with writing—that is, most of them—the new medium can help them escape from the limiting formulas that they’ve imbibed, like the five paragraph essay.

In addition, with multimodal compositions, they can draw from capacities like orality, musicality, sociality, and artistry that are typically sidelined in the English classroom. For instance, a student adroit at networking via social media could draw on that capacity to solicit responses to her survey, thus gathering valuable data for a proposal. A student who loves art can put his sense for color, balance, and focus to work in designing a website. A student who enjoys storytelling can use her wide-ranging vocal expression in crafting a podcast.

They can thus begin to build self-confidence, exchanging the label of “bad writer” for “multimedia composer.” A student who feels confident in their rhetorical abilities will enjoy composing more, putting more effort and time into the coursework—a win-win for both you and your student!

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