Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Teaching Series: Using Technology in the Classroom

Part I: Using Technology in the Classroom

Welcome to EGSA's 2013 Blog Teaching Series! This year, EGSA asked some the department's resident experts to provide us with some advice in one of their areas of expertise.

First in this series are Lori Brister and Elizabeth Pittman speaking about how they use technology in their classrooms, the benefits and frustrations of using this technology, and asking themselves how to teach the "text" in the 21st century.

Digital Humanities in the Classroom: Teaching Text with Technology
Lori Brister

In many classrooms, including my own, there is a no-technology policy. Students must buy physical copies of books that they must learn to fill with their own annotations—no phones, no laptops, no tablets. As teachers and professors, it’s our job to extend the attention span of students who are programmed to express themselves in 140characters and/or gifs. On the other hand, I love technology as much as they do, and I believe technology has a lot to offer, from YouTube videos to music libraries, that can make the literature we teach more relative to the world in which our students live. In the GW English Department, we’re on the forefront of the digital humanities revolution, utilizing programs and platforms to make our research more interactive, yet there has not been a sustained discussion about how technology can reinvigorate the classroom. So the question then becomes, how do we teach in the 21st century? That is, how do we bridge the gap between technology and teaching the text?  

This post is by no means a comprehensive survey of technologies that can be used in the classroom. Instead, I offer only a subjective description of the technologies that I currently use to teach inside and outside of the classroom, how I use technology, and, perhaps most importantly, why I use technology in my classroom.

In the 1411 survey course, I teach English literature from the Romantics to the present, always with a strong emphasis on visual culture. It would be impossible, or at least incredibly difficult, to explain the relationship between the picturesque and Romantic poetry, or between nineteenth-century realism and the development of photography, without visual aids. I started using Microsoft PowerPoint in the classroom because it allowed me to teach texts and contexts the way I wanted to teach them. PowerPoint is easy to use, and it takes minimal time to prepare slide shows for class. Students, I soon found, appreciate the occasional break from droll lectures and the pressure of class discussion.

One alternative to PowerPoint is Prezi.com, an online platform that allows users to choose between dozens of templates, build content from a wide range of media, and organize presentations in unusual ways. If you want your class to see one slide, process the information, then see another slide, PowerPoint is great, but if you want your students to see the relationship between slides or groups of slides, Prezi is the (nearly) perfect solution. Prezi gives your presentation a clear narrative and it does so in visually dynamic ways. Prezi can be a challenge (read: so frustrating you might throw your computer), but after a few failed attempts, the strengths and advantages become clear. Not only do students really enjoy Prezis, but colleagues are also impressed when you use them at conferences.

Prezisare built online and are easily accessible anywhere. You can set your privacy to restrict viewing to one user or members of a group, or you can leave it public, open and available for anyone teaching the same topics. That means you can browse Prezis for ideas you can use and learn from. Prezis range from very complex designs to explain very complex ideas, like in The Theory of Relativity; or, ifyou’re more of a novice, like me, you can use simple designs to explain moderately complex ideas, like in my The Co-Evolution of Literature and VisualCulturePrezi.

While PowerPoint and Prezi can enliven your classroom, many of us are looking for ways to engage students outside of the classroom using social media like Facebook groups, Twitter, Tumblr, or YouTube. Today’s students are much more comfortable expressing themselves online. They’re familiar with the platforms and formats, and online interaction is first nature for most students. For my own needs, I’ve found blogging to best the way to get students involved outside of the classroom, especially students who may not participate much in classroom discussions.

For my current class, I curate eng1411.wordpress.com. The blog format allows me to post relevant YouTube clips, photos, and the links to the Prezis I use in lectures, as well as further explanations of topics or fun trivia we didn’t have time to cover in class. Students are required to comment on at least five blog posts throughout the semester, and they must also submit one post on a topic of their choosing that relates to the texts and topics we’ve discussed in class. There are a lot of different blogging platforms out there, including anew function supported by Blackboard, so choose whatever works best for you.

For anyone who is still not convinced that integrating technology into your classroom is worth the effort, I’ll leave you with this personal anecdote. When started college, oh so many years ago, my French professor asked the class to meet in the computer lab across campus, or I should say, “the computer lab, which was across campus” to clarify that there was only one computer lab, it was across campus, and it contained fourteen Compaq desktops and a dot-matrix. We sat there, listening to our professor’s instruction to type “h-t-t-p-colon-backslash-backslash…” and suddenly, through the magic of Yahoo!, America Online, and Geocities, we were “surfing the ‘Net” for French newspapers, music, and dancing hamsters. This is not the world we live in now. This isn’t the world most of our students were even born into. But, somehow, it’s still the world in which we teach.

How I Use Technology in the Classroom:The Successes and Many, Many Failures of a Practicing Professor

Elizabeth Pittman

In my daily life, I use technology sparingly—if you can call being wed primarily to my laptop, iPhone, and sometimes an iPad, spare—and in the classroom, I might be even more tech adverse. My allegiances and responsibilities are to the text; not to the student’s pleasure or making the text connect in any obvious way to a student’s life. And there is always just so much to cover. However, I will resist these (outmoded?) tendencies and use what I find to be the most amazing resource and archive for any teacher, YouTube. I have also used Storify, tumblr, Twitter, and Blogspot in order to foster students’ relationships to the text and to a larger intellectual community in literary studies. I, of course,always use Blackboard as a shadow classroom, but does that really count as technology anymore?

Last semester I had the wonderful opportunity to teach a service-learning course the department was offering for the first (but not the last!) time. I thought this course would be a great vehicle for trying out the conjunction of teaching and learning with Twitter. By its very nature, the course was asking students to think of their work as English majors in the larger context of GW’s relationship to Washington, D.C. and to a prestigious literary organization, as well as to the individual students’ relationship to their city, the“real-world” possibilities for their major and of themselves as professionals representing GWU. I made Twitter use a requirement—so said the syllabus at least. Unfortunately, my students by and large resisted this requirement. These few used Twitter as a space for generative conversation with either the new ideas they were encountering or to direct each other to reading material that contributed to class discussions. I found the resistance to Twitter shocking,as it is to me a very valuable space to connect with academics in my field, writers, “breaking news,” and even famous people! I find requiring the use of social media platforms outside of the classroom will be successful as many other components of a course are, depending upon the number of self-directed and highly motivated students you have in the class. I continue to hope for the day when students use social media to contend with the course content beyond what the syllabus stipulates.

In each of my courses, I require a reading response, and have always done so on Blackboard. Students would have to post a comment as well as a discussion question or two to Blackboard discussion groups once a week. This semester I have moved the shadow class space largely away from Blackboard and to the class blog, http://engl3810spring2013.blogspot.com/. Students are required to post lengthier responses to the blog at least four times a semester, and I have due dates in the reading schedule on the syllabus. They are also required to comment on at least two posts. So far students have by and large met the requirement, though there has been some flagging of participation in the second round. I have been very impressed by the quality of the work done by the students in this medium. The blog is a highly malleable space and I am interested in students’ ownership of their work in the space. I do comment on posts as I would on any written work handed in to me, but I am worried that this even might be too much feedback or intervention from me. I don’t want my comments to be read as corrective or authoritative, unless necessary. Each student is a blog “author” meaning that she has freedom over the content she posts, and it is not screened by or filtered through me. I am not sure yet if this is the best process or practice. However, I hope to promote self-guided learning, particularly in an upper-level seminar. (I invite you to take a look at the blog. It is very basic. I would love feedback for my own improvement.)

What I do unflaggingly find useful in the classroom are the Internet’s many, many resources for Black Studies. In the course I am currently teaching, Malcolm X is continuing to be a figure of discussion and importance in the course. I directed students who wanted to continue these conversations about X to http://www.columbia.edu/cu/ccbh/mxp/: The Malcolm X Project hosted by Columbia University, and containing many materials inspired by and used in Manning Marable’s research for his biography of the intellectual. I point students to web resources, whether they are archives or sites where discussions and knowledge proliferate. I will bring an article into the classroom that clarifies an issue we are exploring. Of course, this practice can and has taken place using strictly print media. What I find useful is the shared experience of attention on an image. Students can be much more confident “reading” text even if it is simply projected onto a screen.

Lori Brister is an advanced doctoral student and instructor in the English Department at the George Washington University where she is currently completing her dissertation.

Elizabeth Pittman is an advanced doctoral student and instructor in the English Department at the George Washington University where she is currently completing her dissertation.


  1. Thanks so much for writing and sharing your preferred methods for sharing visual media with your students in the classroom, Lori. I've typically shown music, film, or clips of speeches in my classes. Recently, though, I have needed to address the importance of photography in shaping and spreading politics and social change. I have been surprised by just how transformative photography is for class discussions. I don't know why because I'm a photo hound, if you will (you will, right). Several students have told me how much they enjoyed the use of photography to think through the material and that it allowed them access to the period in ways they didn't have already. I use my Pinterest page to collate photography as well as the youtube clips I want to share. Thanks again! Cheers, EWP.

  2. Technology can really bring a lot of advantages if used wisely.