I have to admit, at times, I am a proud Luddite. I still love writing on the board, using handouts, and having students read in print (curse those liquid crystal displays!). Yet, I would be lying if I have not seen the potential value of educational technology in the classroom. I would also argue that it would be irresponsible to ignore the wave of digitally literate students coming into our classrooms and the skills they possess in those domains – with digital storytelling and data visualization having the most promise in my eyes. Of course, us Luddites do not need to mindlessly drink at the well of technology! There is an overabundance of educational apps and software being produced every year, and not all of it can easily be made to align with our pedagogical goals.
Moreso, the flash of technology should not blind us to its circumscribed value. The hanging question should not be how do we integrate technology into our classrooms, but whether technology can sustain or even advance our educational aims. Our expenditure of time and resources should not go into finding the newest educational tech iteration, but how to identify the technology’s potential to deepen our students’ learning. Sometimes, new technology may make us reconsider our final course outcomes (say, replacing a traditional reserch paper with image-driven scholarship), but I hope we also identify clear pedagogical reasons to do so.
“But wait,” you may object, “I already use my university’s learning management system, I am tech savvy!” True, Moodle, Blackboard, Canvas, and other lesser known learning management systems (LMS) are often integrated into a school’s network and offer many educational avenues not available to the traditional non-digital learning environment. The question, I suggest, is how many of us use it beyond a digital repository for assignments and readings? Often there are many uses – such as online discussion forums – that can add a new teaching modality. Unfortunately for fans of LMS software, the new educational tech is more user friendly. In my view, this new tech (often marketed as apps) will not replace the more comprehensive LMS software (at least in the near future); but it does augment it in valuable ways. Overall, many of the new educational apps are more intuitive, interactive, and collaborative than the functions found in university learning management software.
Below I review several different kinds of digital education tools and the potential for their use in discussion based humanities courses, such as those found in Religious Studies. Almost all of the educational tools below offer free versions of their applications with limited functionality. Since I have not paid the subscription for any of these tools, I will only discuss the free features. Regrettably, I have been introduced to many of these tools only recently and my comments remain, overall, rather cursory. Nevertheless, I have already imagined clear benefits to incorporating several of these tools into my course planning. I hope to update this page as my opinions develop and new tools emerge.
Instead of using expensive classroom clickers, students can download an app on their cell phone and respond to questions set up by the instructor. Honestly, I see narrow value for technology like this because it too easily breeds an impersonal classroom environment. If I wanted to take a quick vote, I would rather ask for a simple show of hands (excepting large lectures). If I wanted to gather a variety of responses on a topic, I would rather engage in dialogue with a few students.
Of course, there are moments when polling apps could be very useful. For example, if you wanted to vote or gather data anonymously, such as providing a mid-term evaluation or “exit ticket” at the end of class. Or, if you wanted to set up a debate between competing perspectives or interpretations, you may gather data to set the topics and parameters of the discussion. Alternatively, I could see a ranking task working well to stimulate discussion. In any regard, I suggest using polling apps judiciously and would say their ideal implementation includes a meaningful class discussion (e.g. analysis, interpretation, debate, perspective-taking, etc.)
- Mentimeter: Perhaps my favorite because you have several visually appealing layouts to select when displaying student responses (like the “spider chart” for the scales-type question). There are ten types of questions to choose from (Multiple Choice, Open Ended, Scales, Image Choice, Ranking, etc.), but you can only ask three questions total in the free version of this app (hack: when using the scales-type, you can actually add several more questions). Students go to the Mentimeter website and enter a code to gain access to the poll; it’s pretty easy to use.
- Poll Everywhere: More types of questions (around 20) than Mentimeter, but several are just variants of the open-ended type. One interesting question type allows an image to be uploaded (even a map) and students can click on various parts of it. Students have to text a rather long code to a designated number to get access to the poll.
- VoxVote: This backend interface is not as easy to use as the others and I honestly just stopped trying to figure it out, but I’ll list it here as another free option.
Naturally one could use these apps for exam review or even to review material from the previous day’s class (say, a casual five minute review as students stroll into class). Truly, the benefit of these apps is the ability to assign students to teams, which ramps up the competitive spirits of almost everyone. As with the polling apps, I am hesitant to use these games when simple class discussion would suffice. Additionally, multiple choice testing overall has limited educational value, but that is not to say it cannot be used effectively or wisely. Not surprisingly, some functionality of these quiz apps overlap with the polling apps above.
- Kahoot: You can create three types of questions: multiple choice, a jumble (think of putting options into a correct order), or a survey. In order to lessen test anxiety, I presume, the potential answers are a mixture of shapes and colors, not the traditional letters (A-D). You can select to have the game played individually or as teams. It is easy to incorporate background images into the quiz, and the overall design is simple and visually appealing. Students go to the Kahoot website and enter a code to gain access to the quiz.
- Socrative: You can create a quiz with three types of questions: multiple choice, true/false, and short answer (NB: the answer the student types has to match the answer you provide exactly, so it’s more of a fill in the blank than short essay). The “Space Race” option allows you to assign teams. There is also an option to make an “Exit Ticket” directly. Students go to the Socrative website and enter a code to gain access to the quiz or exit ticket. In my opinion, the visual appeal of Kahoot is better than Socrative.
This is a broad category of tools that I divide into two categories, timelines and annotated media tools. The one common aspect is that these tools allow for a more visual and multi-media approach to creating narrative. Instructors could use these to supplement lecture, but I would argue their best usage is through having students create the content. As individuals or in groups, students could be given assignments to utilize these tools to create stimulating review, research, or presentation projects. These tools, in effect, represent a new(ish) genre of writing and content creation, and thus require the crafting of careful guidelines (or grading rubrics). Some instructors may find these suitable substitutes for traditional research papers.
- Tiki-Toki: An interactive timeline tool which allows you to add interactive cells along a timeline and incorporate a multimedia source (image, video, audio) or weblink to the written text in the cell. The cells can be tagged and assigned colors so they are easy to visually identify (such as for distinguishing people, places, events, and so forth). The backend interface is relatively easy to use.
- TimelineJS: This is among the suite of open-source tools for digital story-telling originally designed for journalists known as Knightlab. As with Tiki-Toki, you can add multimedia or weblinks to each cell with text. The backend interface uses a spreadsheet, and thus is not as intuitive as Tiki-Toki. The published presentation has a slightly more polished feel than Tiki-Toki, but ultimately they are quite comparable.
- Sutori: Similar to the timeline tools above, this app allows you to create cells with multimedia sources or weblinks, as well as discussion forums and quizzes. This added functionality gives this online tool the feeling of LMS software, but with a graphical interface on the front end. While the cells are distributed sequentially along a line, the line does not incorporate dates, offering a streamlined vision of events (it is easy to add dates to the text within the individual cells if absolute dating is necessary). The backend interface is relatively easy to use.
- StorylineJS: Not technically a timeline, but also part of the Knightlab suite. This tool allows you to annotate a line chart to give context behind the number represented.
- Thinglink: A tool that allows you to imbed interactive cells into images (including an image of a map) and video. In addition, multimedia sources (images, videos, audio) or web links can be added to the embedded cells. Essentially, this allows for the creation of a non-linear narrative structured on a visual base. Perhaps the most interesting use of this tool involves creating interactive 360 degree photographs (the site provides a library of 360 degree images), but this function is behind the paywall. The finished 360 degree product could have more interactive capacities than the e-Dunhuang site, which provides some interactive cells in many of its cave photographs.
- StorymapJS: Part of the Knightlab suite, this allows you to imbed interactive cells into a map and add multimedia sources (images, videos, audio) or web links. The published presentation can be quite stunning.
- SoundciteJS: Part of the Knightlab suite, this allows soundclips (taken from Soundcloud) to be directly embedded in text. This works best with the blogging site WordPress.
These tools are primarily meant to foster communication between students (and teacher-to-students) outside of the classroom setting. Most LMS cover the same functionality, but these newer technologies are better than the old online discussion forums found in most institutions.
- Slack: An online communication hub that dispenses with the need for emails, online message boards, and discussion groups and provides the necessary space for conversation, questions, and file sharing. Slack is marketed as a more mobile-device-friendly LMS, and it has its ardent supporters among the MOOC community. Communication is accomplished through a mixture of channels, threads, and direct messages.
- Screencast-o-matic: A rather easy-to-use tool for creating screencasts, i.e. videos that capture computer desktop activity and your voice (or image). This can be used for audio feedback on student assignments (with the digital document also captured in the video) or students can create screen-based videos as projects.
Grist for the Mill: On one hand, polling apps and game-style quizlets could easily be incorporated into an active, student-centered classroom. With careful planning, their use could foster discussion among students and even provide stimulus for lively debate. The digital storytelling tools, on the other hand, could be used as new creatvie expressions for student projects or as online sites for class collaboration. Finally, the communication apps can facilitate an out-of-class experience, allowing students and instructors to maintain avenues of contact that exceed the capacities of email or online discussion forums.
I would like to thank Mindy Colin for her workshop introducing many of these tools to me, and the members of the Japanese Religions Pedagogy seminar, Fabio Rambelli, Ellen Van Goethem, Ori Porath, Emm Simpson, Diamante Waters, Kaitlyn Ugoretz, and Daigengna Duoer, for our invaluable and spirited conversations about how to best implement them.
*This is part of a series where I discuss my evolving thought process on designing a new university course in Religious Studies. In practice, this process will result in a syllabus on Japanese Religions. These posts will remain informal and mostly reflective.
 I am being facetious, sorry my Luddite brothers and sisters! In reality, I try to consciously use a hybrid of old school and new school approaches. For example, I use a mix of print and digital reading resources in my courses. The more conceptually complex a reading – where I could imagine needing to flip back and forth between pages and ideas quickly – the more likely I am to assign it in print form.
 If you are hoping students will just like the techy new tools, or think they are cool, well, I would suggest that is not good enough.
 Generally, I see problem solving and task-oriented courses – think STEM classes and lab sessions – as employing different pedagogical methodologies. Of course, there is considerable overlap, but I could imagine a calculus instructor envisioning different uses for the tools I discuss.
 I suppose one could also these apps to ask questions about a sensitive topic where students would prefer to remain anonymous. In my view, however, I would rather use these tools to stimulate a good conversation, which might be difficult in this scenario – though I imagine it could be done strategically and skillfully.