To instructors, student engagement is an is an important issue. With advances in technology, there are greater options, but determining the best approach can be overwhelming. Landon Schnabel, in a TRAILS essay (2014), provides a useful organizational scheme for exploring and discussing the pedagogical uses of technology. There are at least four categories of technologies based on whether you are considering using technology inside the classroom or outside and whether you need a technology whose primary use is communication from faculty to students or between and among students and faculty.
In the Classroom
Let’s start with technology that we can use inside our classrooms to get across a message. The technology that immediately comes to mind is PowerPoint (or Prezi or Keynote). There is a reason that everyone knows the phrase “death by PowerPoint.” Don’t go there! But PowerPoint can help focus a discussion, present charts and tables, and embed engaging visuals and video clips (Hill, Arford, Lubiow, and Smollin 2012). PowerPoint is not as useful in presenting detailed information. Articles and books still offer the best solution for complex and detailed evidence and arguments. In addition to PowerPoint, we find an amazing array of YouTube videos, TED Talks, and videos. Sociological Cinema (www.thesociologicalcinema.com) is a rich resource for videos and film clips (see Andrist, Chepp, Dean and Miller 2014). Used thoughtfully, these technologies can help keep student attention focused on your topic and can powerfully illustrate basic sociological concepts. For example, Richard Wilkinson’s 2011 TED Talk on global inequality is both informative and appealing. Students in our classes were enthusiastic about discussing the points he made (www.ted.com/talks/richard_wilkinson?language=en)
Communication in the Classroom
There are also technologies designed for classroom use that can encourage faculty/student or student/student communication within the classroom. Our favorites include Google apps like Google Docs and Google Slides. These are free apps, and several students can work on the same document or slide at the same time. In large classes, “clickers,” Poll Everywhere, or Top Hat can be used to take attendance, provide a reading quiz, or compile student responses to questions you construct. Poll Everywhere and Top Hat are applications that allow students to use their own devices and appear to be gaining in popularity because students do not have to buy an additional piece of equipment, and they are less likely to forget their own phones and laptops.
Of course, there are serious disadvantages to encouraging students to actively use their devices in class. They are quite likely to be distracted by the opportunity to use social media for something other than class purposes. You have to decide how to handle that, but we know of no way to assure that students will not try to multitask other than to make sure that they are provided with multiple opportunities for engagement. In our small classes, we ban phone and computer use unless we specifically request students to use them. If you are using a “clicker” type technology and are asking students to respond multiple times during the class, banning devices is not practical.
Outside Class Communication
Learning management systems or course websites can be used to provide information or instructions for students. Class time can be saved for tasks that need to be accomplished face-to-face. There are also several technologies that can be used to encourage student-to-student interaction. Learning management systems contain the ability to create group discussions. Persell (2004) provides an exemplar of structured web-based discussions that proved to be quite effective. Social media and online discussion boards can be used to engage students with different preferences for participation. Social media like Facebook Groups can be used to elicit discussion, especially for students who may not feel comfortable participating in large-class discussion.
Technology on the Side
Technology should not necessarily be our first plan of action, even in large classes. Tried and true teaching techniques, such as discussion and informal writing, can be used in any discipline to encourage engagement and deep thinking. There are also many activities specifically designed to teach sociological concepts that can be effectively used even in large classes. For example, Peretz and Messner (2013) created a classroom activity to teach social structure and individual agency by asking students to stand up or sit down depending upon the conditions under which they chose to take the class in which they are enrolled. This activity can be used with up to 300 students. Check TRAILS and Teaching Sociology for research-based teaching methods. See Atkinson and Lowney (2015) for a more extended discussion of teaching and technology.
In short, there are technologies that can effectively be used for faculty-to-student communication both inside and outside class and student-to-student interaction inside or outside the classroom. So, what’s the rub? None of the technologies can be effectively used without careful consideration and planning. We must know what we want students to accomplish, and we have to assess whether the technologies we choose help our students meet our planned learning outcomes. There are no magic bullets.
- Andrist, Lester, Valerie Chepp, Paul Dean, and Michel V. Miller. 2014. “Toward a Video Pedagogy: With a Teaching Typology with Learning Goals.” Teaching Sociology 42(3):196-206.
- Atkinson, Maxine P. and Kathleen S. Lowney. 2015. In the Trenches: Teaching and Learning Sociology. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.
- Hill, Andrea, Tammi Arford, Amy Lubitow, and Leandra M. Smollin. 2012. “I’m Ambivalent about It”: The Dilemmas of PowerPoint.” Teaching Sociology 40(3):242-256.
- Pertz, Tal H. and Michael A. Messner. 2013. “Stand Up/Sit Down Structure and Agency Activity.” Class Activity published in TRAILS: Teaching Resources and Innovations Library for Sociology. Washington DC: American Sociological Association. (http://trails.asanet.org)
- Persell, Caroline Hodges. 2004. “Using Focused Web-based Discussions to Enhance Student Engagement and Deep Understanding.” Teaching Sociology 32(1):61-78.
- Schnabel ,Landon. 2014. “Technology in the Traditional Classroom.” Essay published in TRAILS: Teaching Resource and Innovations Library for Sociology. Washington, DC American Sociological Association. (trails.asanet.org).