Introducing new technology without leaving students behind

Illustration (such as it is…) by John Muir, based on the Padagogy [sic] Wheel v.2

Weighing what’s worth class time to teach

We try to make the normal online class experience as intuitive as possible, with the hope that instructors won’t need to spend time doing tech support.

What if you or your instructor want to try something different? Try some new app, some new communication method, some new device? This is a great thing! Spending instructional time and resources to teach introducing new technology almost always involves tradeoffs, though.

Here’s how I think about those decisions—which kinds of technology are most worth the time.

Authentic (to the field, the profession) technology


Teaching students to use technology in a way they’ll use later is a great use of time—and I think online courses should include these skills in their course objectives.

Students will be fairly motivated to learn these skills and will probably see the connection to their personal and professional goals.

  • For a humanities course, this might include online research skills, citation management, ebook creation and electronic textural analysis, and blogging.
  • For an engineering course, this could include math-modeling software, design tools, and research skills.
  • For a communications course, you might have students use web-development tools, social media, and social-science research skills.

Basic digital literacy and productivity


I think we have an obligation in online courses to help students develop basic digital literacy—for example, how to use Google search or communicate appropriately in email or social media.

We need to provide help for these skills across programs and across the institution, but certain class assignments may give great opportunities for give some guidance. (Not to mention the many teachable moments that will come up for an instructor.)

Ditto productivity skills: taking notes, organizing files, using a digital calendar. (The “study skills” of yore.)

A great resource (or curriculum map) for these baseline skills is Mozilla’s Web Literacy Map.

“Educational technology”


There are hundreds of “ed tech” web apps, mobile apps, plugins, digital services, and so on, all of which promise to enhance learning, or often specifically online learning.

The only way to figure out which of these is worthwhile is for us all to experiment and share our thoughts!

I think it’s important to be judicious about introducing this kind of tech into a course, though, if it’s going to take much time for students to set up and learn. (After all, they may see the point of learning WordPress or CAD, but they probably won’t feel the same about BlizzJumbo or ZanyTeachPro™, and the time they spend learning it may not pay off beyond that one class.)

Empowering and supporting students

Make technology a part of the course orientation

One essential is having a master inventory of tools and apps students will use in the course. You can use this as a repository for help resources. Include it in your syllabus, both in printable version and in an easy-to-find, in-your-face version in the online course:

Screen Shot of technology requirements page in Carmen


You might also add specific activities in the first week of class asking students to download an app, log in to a service, or whatever, to identify early on if there are any technical difficulties.

Provide just-in-time help resources

You may need to resort to creating a screencast and showing your students how to do something.

I usually find, though, that there are a million walkthroughs and YouTube videos on just about every software application and tech technique.

When you give students an assignment that requires them to use some kind of technology, link to or embed those videos right there in the instructions.

Build flexibility into your tech plans

The most empathetic way to keep students from getting tech vertigo is provide plenty of help but to give them choices about how deep to go.

If some software skill or multimedia program is peripheral to your course objectives, then require only the most basic level of use. (But let students know they can get as creative, complex, or in-depth as they want!)

What I’ve been reading


It’s cold out, so I’ve been curling up with some books. (I’ve left off the novels.)

Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better by Clive Thompson

Are we losing some of our humanity? What happens if the Internet goes down: Do our brains collapse, too? Or is the question naive and irrelevant—as quaint as worrying about whether we’re “dumb” because we can’t compute long division without a piece of paper and a pencil. (18)

I was expecting this to be mostly a response to the Chicken Little “The Internet Is Making Us Dumber!” genre, but it’s actually more interesting than that. (And Thompson doesn’t set himself up as an armchair neuroscientist like many of those books’ authors do.) This is a thoughtful examination of the gains we make when we partner with technology, when we all play to our strengths.

The chapter on learning is fairly insightful. Again, the discussion focuses on using technology to free up humans’ time and energy for parts of the process that really benefit from human involvement: guidance, feedback, and so on.

Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World by Jane McGonigal

McGonigal is a part of the TED crowd, I think. Her ideas are optimistic, intriguing, “worldchanging.” At about halfway through, her book certainly convinces me that lots of people play videos games, that many gamers are productive and happy, and that games can be used for positive gains, but I don’t think there’s much of a case for the inherent positives of the medium itself.

It’s entirely possible that I have insurmountable bias, though; I’ve never been a gamer. (Unless solitaire and the online NYT crossword puzzle count as video games.)

A Theory of Fun for Game Design by Raph Koster

A really playful book, as might be expected from the title. The book isn’t about gamification or  specific game mechanics; it’s about what, broadly, makes games fun. Koster believes that games are all about engaging ourselves with patterns. We learn a game’s pattern and then derive fun from practicing that pattern in different iterations and partially mastering it. Games whose formal mechanisms are too baroque won’t seem fun; similarly, a game whose pattern we can master effortlessly (e.g., tic tac toe) isn’t fun either.

Many of Koster’s observations mirror theories about learning, especially when it comes to that sweet spot of finding graspable-but-challenging tasks. There are good lessons in the book for instructional designers about understanding that spectrum from busywork to fun/motivating to intimidating.