Urban legend #623: The Expensive Cardboard Box. It goes something like this; a parent scans the ads, spots a great gift idea for their kid, scrimps and saves, shops and purchases, wraps and delivers the latest and greatest high-tech wizardry-wonderfulness that can bleep, bloop, pam, puh-zowie a bedazzling array of electronic chirps and rattles embedded into a piece of near indestructible plastic. And once it’s finally opened: the kid ends up playing with the box. Yup, the toy sits deserted collecting dust bunnies under the bed while the box is in the backyard where it serves as headquarters for aliens from the planet Zorbon. The cost of that moral: priceless.

Yesterday, I spent a good chunk of the day researching the use of technology in the college classroom. I used this thing they call the i-n-t-e-r-n-e-t, and searched on an “engine.” Some of you may have heard of it, it’s called g-o-o-g-l-e. It did not work very well. After typing in “technology in the college classroom” the Google-thingy responded with 8,810,000 web sites in 0.12 seconds. Seriously, that’s one polluting “engine.” Most of the “hits” that “bounced” onto my screen involved companies that wanted to sell technology for the classroom, or schools that claimed that 99% of their classrooms were “wired.” Only four articles appeared that actually approached the topic of technology in the college classroom and one of those had the word “Naked” in the headline, while another stated “subscription” only.

But the subscription only site (Chronicle of Higher Education) reminded me that I do indeed possess a subscription. Voila! The American Historical Association (AHA) “log-in” screen appeared like Las Vegas on the desert horizon. I searched for past and present articles via the AHA’s Perspectives magazine and a plethora of prose described how historians can actually employ technology to increase student learning.

And this is what I wanted, a serious look into how, why and what technological wonders can be successfully utilized in a college classroom. I also wanted warnings, downsides, trepidations and other doomsayer articles to counter the hope, hooray, and hoopla of technology as well. The AHA was there for me.

Conclusions? Keep it simple and ask four basic questions – kind of a flowchart thingy. Ready?

1) Does the use of a certain technology increase a student’s ability to meet certain SLOs (Student Learning Objectives)? If no – stop. If yes, proceed…

2) Is this technology allowing more student-to-teacher interactions? If no – stop. If yes, proceed…

3) Is this technology allowing me to get a) more information in front of the student and b) in a coherent and digestible manner? If no – stop. If yes, proceed…

4) The Bonus Question: Is this technology allowing more peer-to-peer collaboration?

Example: What about JoeHistorian, the amazing blog? Let us run it through the questions and find out.

Can my blog increase the chance that students will meet their SLOs? Yes, absolutely. Let’s say I have some tough reading assignments coming up. I can post to my blog, “Hey students, this reading of Swift is tricky. Things to look for, satire versus serious intent, his description of the mythical Lilliput in relation to the New World, and how his use of struldbrugs reflect British takes on again and the old.” Of course I created a link to the Swift passage, demanded that students respond with ideas (via a rubric for points), and asked students to submit possible quiz/test questions (also via a rubric for points). When class time arrives, guess what? I know who read, who submitted ideas (hopefully a majority), and then we move on to discussion, engage in ideas, debate issues all the while citing the document they all read and responded to.

Does my blog allow more student-to-teacher interaction? Again, yes. Class is a discussion rather than me pointing to and extolling upon certain points in the passage. It’s now a two-way conversation rather than top-down.

Is the blog allowing me to get more information in front of students in a coherent and digestible manner? Again, yes. If I took class time to do this, that would have cut time away from discussions and debates, or absorb time that I could use for other important matters. Also, by demanding student responses students are forced to digest a passage, think it through, postulate ahead of time what it is I really want them to take away from…History.

And best yet, blogs don’t come in a box. They are free (thank you, WordPress)! Also, I don’t have to worry about the aliens from the planet Zorbon.