Whether taking on a brand new class, a slow series of updates, or a complete overhaul, instructors constantly find themselves asking “Is this new technology something I can or should be using in my class?” To a degree, the more we move into the information age, the more unavoidable some kind of digital or online presence becomes in education. Instructors find themselves with a spectrum of needs, and spectrum of choices. How does one go about deciding what degree of technology to incorporate into a course?

Currently, courses at the University of Michigan range from pure pen and paper courses taught entirely within in a brick and mortar classroom to MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) that are designed for remote participation. The way students use technology, likewise, ranges from pen and paper only to purely digital interactions. Most courses at the University of Michigan use the learning management system, Canvas. Canvas allows for the electronic distribution of course materials including syllabi, readings, and assignments. To get an idea of the numbers here, for the Fall 2016 semester, there were nearly 3,000 active course sites in Canvas, about 2,500 participating instructors, and just shy of 28,000 active students. How are instructors using the technology within Canvas? There were almost 40,000 assignments and about the same number of discussions. There were also 160,000 files, including almost 6,000 media recordings.  In addition, many instructors use quizzes and announcements to automate assessment and communications.

Going back to our original question about what technology to use, we can start to answer it. The Canvas data makes it clear that there are already a lot of digital interactions, but there’s something that bears mentioning: Virtually all of this activity is outside of the actual classroom for both instructor and student! What about inside the classroom? A quick look at the LSA classroom data base shows that of the 351 rooms available, 295 have a podium computer and 345 have a video projector— lots of technology for instructors during class. What about the students? This isn’t something the university tracks, but we know this: Some instructors insist on students having computers in the classroom, while others explicitly forbid it. Hence, when it comes to students, it’s a more complicated set of questions centered on classroom activities:

Which technology should they be using in the classroom?
When will students use it?

These are usually decisions that no one can make except for the instructor. There is a lot of factors that can help tip the scales when instructors consider student use of technology, but the consultants from LSA Instructional Support Services (LSA-ISS) are here to help make those decisions. The following guide can help instructors make informed decisions about what happens in the classroom with technology and their students.

What Technology Should Students Be Using?

Technology in the classroom can have many positive impacts and make some tasks easier and more efficient. It can also make it possible to do something classes couldn’t do without the technology. For example, group work can be improved through the use of collaborative documents that all the students can work on at the same time. The documents can be projected onto a large screen everyone can see while an instructor watches and provides feedback. Students can seek and engage with sources and evidence in the construction of arguments and making claims in real time, with instant access to online data sources. Students can use digital modeling and analysis tools while an instructor is there in the classroom to provide guidance and help them understand and troubleshoot.

On the other hand, technology can sometimes have a negative impact; it can degrade the quality of work that is done or even remove vital elements of activities that are being done. For example, students might get distracted and start down a research path that is not fruitful. Or, instead of learning to understand how to solve a problem or do a task for themselves, students will simply copy and paste someone else’s solution or use someone else’s tool without actually putting in the effort to understanding the work. Even in the case where similar learning outcomes can be achieved, technology is merely getting the same results with more complications and more work.

Another issue to worry about involves changes such as updates and new versions that might occur over time to a technology, or even its eventual replacement with a new technology. One instructor might say, “It’s about time, let’s use all the new technology!” while another will say, “This worked fine the way it was, why would anyone change it?” The answer is complicated—most technologies or software aren’t owned or developed by the University, which means the software companies have to make changes to the software based on “all” the people using it. Additionally, companies must take into account the changing world around technology, adding compatibility with new systems the software or technology must interact with. A feature one person liked so much might cause problems for others, and vice-versa. A change in the Learning Management System (LMS) might require changes in the all the applications that access it and the plugins used by those applications. All these changes can cascade into the classroom.

Instructional Support Services recommends taking some time to consider, in a measured way, what students would do with a technology in the classroom. What task will students perform? Will the technology help them think about the content? Are there tasks the technology performs that the student won’t? How much time will need to be spent supporting it? What is required to integrate the technology? How might the technology change the ongoing or final assessments in the course? What external support might be required to keep things going smoothly? What happens if there’s a glitch? These are all questions to take into consideration when deciding which technology to use.

What Can Instructors Do To Help Make Sure Technology Is Improving Their Classes?

Do what works. This is the most important element. Every course is different, and every instructor’s style is different. Instructors need to think about the needs of their students and how they can best provide a quality learning environment for those students. They will need to weigh the risk and the rewards of using any technology and plan accordingly.

Start with incremental changes. Improving a course is most practical when making small changes and taking small steps to improve the quality of instruction. There are times when completely revamping a course makes sense; however, that tends to work best when a lot of ground work and thought has already gone into the course. It may be apparent that in order to really move the course forward, a fundamental change needs to occur. Often, this means “flipping” a class to make time for students to participate in active learning tasks. It can also mean moving into a new room with specific technology built in such as a team based active learning classroom. To begin, instructors might consider picking one or two instructional days and testing some ideas out in a more limited fashion. It’s hard work, but it pays off and students really appreciate it.

Communicate. There’s a lot of resources for instructors who are not sure how to best use a technology in a course. LSA-ISS is always happy to help. Groups like the ITS Teaching and Learning Team and CRLT are also great resources, as are other instructors with more experience using technology. If instructors let students know at the beginning of the term they are trying something new to improve the class, students will be better able to understand class expectations and provide feedback at the end of the course.

Plan well and test beforehand. Murphy’s Law is in full effect when an instructor is standing in front of a class trying out a new technology. Providing students with more detail in technology sensitive plans will increase the chances the lesson will go well.

Keep students busy, and keep them accountable. Idle minds lead to idle hands. If an instructor is allowing laptops or phones, students will very quickly find their way into the rabbit hole of the web and social media if they are not sufficiently engaged. In a smaller class, having students use laptops might be more easily monitored. Instructors can also request that all phones be put on silent and placed on the table, unless they are being used for class work. (Interestingly, this allows students to still see that they have messages, and although they can’t respond, it reduces their anxiety and helps them focus on the task at hand.) If students have technology out, they need to be using it, which means they need to have tasks they will be held accountable for completing. Instructors, including the GSIs, can come out from behind the podium, circulate the room, and listen and watch while the students work. Someone will always try to sneak in Facebook or Instagram—instructor presence will help keep it to a minimum.

Know their classes. Not all classes and students will be as adept at using technology. Students in more advanced or technical classes can be expected to do more, as can seniors or grad students, compared to many freshmen in introductory level courses. Small classes are often more tolerant of experimenting with technology and it can be part of their learning experience. Large classes can benefit from technology that allows them to participate more, but it needs to be more robust and well tested.

Train students. Let students know when it is time to use technology and when it is time to put it away. This is an important skill because when students enter the workplace, they need to manage their use of technology. As it turns out, no one is really teaching them about appropriate, mature behavior centered around mobile technology and social media. For example, faculty that have allowed the technology in the rooms have been surprised by students who didn’t even realize they could turn notifications off.

Be adaptable. Be ready for hiccups or the occasional failure. The better instructors understand the technology and its strengths and weaknesses, its functions and limits, the more quickly and easily they can deal with any issues that may arise.

What Can Instructional Support Services Do To Help?

Communicate. LSA-ISS is constantly reaching out to instructors to help us understand and prepare to support the upcoming and ongoing instructional needs for technology. This includes audio/visual, computer run software, hardware, and web based software. LSA instructors can reach out to us at any time for help in the planning or enactment of lessons, regardless of the type of technology used.

Provide support, documentation, availability, and training. LSA-ISS is constantly working to create better support systems for technology in LSA, whether it’s making sure there are web pages or documents that provide 24/7 explanations, consultation meetings with individual instructors, or group training for departments and specific courses.

Do no harm. If we have input regarding a potential change, we advocate to make sure it’s for the better. Technology should make teaching and learning simpler, easier, more efficient, and allow students to do things they couldn’t do before. It should be seamless—effort should be placed into learning the content of the class, not wasting time trying to figure out or troubleshoot a new system.

Offer multiple solutions. One solution will not work for all classrooms. The ISS team is constantly looking for the best options to share with instructors about hardware, software, or on the web-based applications.

Provide funds for incorporating new technology, or novel uses of technology. LSA-ISS can help instructors find funding to improve their classes by incorporating new technology or developing novel uses of existing technology.

Support transitions. Unfortunately, older systems sometimes lose compatibility, and it is no longer feasible to sustain the maintenance and support of the systems. We will maintain support for older systems while easing the transition to newer systems. LSA-ISS can help find ways to continue doing an educational activity in the new system or develop new activities that take advantage of the unique functions of the new system.

Instructors who are looking for technology support at any stage of instruction, including planning, funding, implementation, or evaluation should feel free to reach out to LSA Instructional Support Services.

For one-on-one consultations, contact the Learning Technology and Consulting Group (734.615.0099, or lsa-iss-ltc@umich.edu).

For upcoming training sessions, check out the Teaching and Technology Collaborative site.

For help with the technology built into instructional spaces, including both classrooms and auditoriums, contact ISS Technical Assistance Group (734-615-0100, or Iss-help@umich.edu).

For help with general productivity software, or for more information on training for students using software, contact BlueCorps.