Notes on tech-based teaching-tinkering

With considerable hyperbole floating around about the “transformative” or “disruptive” technologies possible in education, I’m going to record a few of the experiments I have tried in the past few years in my classes.1 This is in no way any claim about the miracles I have produced in the classroom (haven’t seen those, though I have enjoyed a number of student papers). This is just tossing a few things out for the record and consideration of others as the type of small-scale experimentation that happens without jargon and hyperbole:

  • Recorded fishbowls. One of the problems I face with even a relatively small discussion class of … 30 … is that it is not small in the dynamic feel, in terms of students’ perceptions that they are participants rather than observers. In a class of 30 there are always participants, a few folks who would jump in on any topic after two seconds of silence. But at least half are relatively passive (with percentages going much higher in larger classes). In a recent semester, my class was scheduled twice a week for 130 minutes. So for a little over half of the term, I invited 4-5 students in for a 30- or 35-minute discussion, recorded it, and put the recording up for other students, with the explanation that they were responsible for all material — they were certainly welcome to come to the small (fishbowl) session and listen live, but they were obliged to listen to it at some point. One student who wrote me at the end of the semester said the fishbowls were his favorite part of the class.
  • Mastery-learning hybrid with quizzes. In a recent semester, I wanted to challenge students to apply concepts from each week of the course, but I did not want their grade to depend significantly on whether they “got” both the concepts and the necessary application. So I used Blackboard quizzes to set up stages of advancement: the first quiz they took on a unit was a set of untimed multiple-choice items with unlimited retake opportunities, the second was timed with four retake opportunities, and the last quiz they took on a unit was the challenge question require a mini-essay response. Passing the first quiz guaranteed 5 points out of 10 for the unit, passing the second guaranteed at least 7 points, giving them a guarantee that I couldn’t screw them too badly on the challenge, and giving me a guarantee that students had to have gotten a minimum of the material to get the challenge. It took some effort to create the multiple levels of quizzes, but students told me they appreciated the multiple opportunities to succeed at the basic levels, and I am satisfied I could give them much more challenging material than I otherwise would have.
  • Form-driven feedback with mail-merge. A few years ago, Andrew Cullison suggested using Google Docs forms to complete grading rubrics. In a recent semester I tried a variant, setting up a database and a form-based entry with the main rubric items plus comment fields, including general comments on strengths and weaknesses of the student work.2 Once the entry was completed, I exported the data as a spreadsheet and created a mail-merge document in Word to print out the feedback neatly for students. I used handwritten feedback this summer, and I suspect I’ll move back to the form-driven feedback: I suspect I write more positive and useful comments that way, and students don’t have to ask me about my chicken-scratch.
  • Transferring student papers to my iPad. Like many faculty, my OCD tendency as a TA back in grad school was to line-edit undergraduate work the way I would have wanted it as a feedback-desperate student, not the way all students read and absorb it well. In combination with rubrics and what I described just above, getting papers onto my iPad makes it much easier just to type away in feedback, reserving notes on specific spots to where I need to emphasize a concern or a suggestion I have.
  • Using the Attendance app for attendance… and learning student names. I love Dave Reed’s Attendance app for iPad, which lets me take attendance easily, and thanks to the ability to import photos and then display photos/names randomly, I have a reasonable chance to learn some student names before the semester begins and lock in my memory of them within a week. I’m awful with names and faces, and this replaces index-card flashcards I used to create by hand and then the Mnemosyne program (which is still quite wonderful).
Many colleagues I know have gone further than I (or at least in different directions), using Dropbox for students sharing work in research groups and classes, VoiceThread for conversation starters, and other things. Few of us are utopian, and we range broadly in age, experience, and discipline. These decisions are made for instructional reasons, the same way we would make choices on how and where to use email to contact students for various purposes. One important consideration here is the bang for the buck: of the items I have mentioned, only one (the mastery-learning hybrid) requires a significant amount of time added to what I had done, and they could be done as little bets rather than giant course (re)designs.
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  1. I have not yet read Rick Hess’s paper, Quality Control in K-12 Digital Learning, and this is about my experiences teaching in higher ed, not K-12. But I hope to in the next week, before Chairmageddon I become department chair and lose all free time. []
  2. As those commenting on a similar ProfHacker blog entry pointed out, I am not sure that using Google Docs would pass muster with FERPA, and it takes maybe 10 extra minutes to set up the database and form. []