Professors Test New Tech to Teach, Reach Studentsby Karen Shih ’09 | illustrations by Kelsey Marotta ’14
Remember the times you raced to reach a professor’s office hours to turn in a paper or ask a question, only to find the door locked?
Today, office hours for some savvy faculty members at UMD aren’t just in their office. Or limited to any particular hours.
They’ve found that students who grew up with Google and have only distant memories of the first iPhone expect instant and constant communication. UMD-provided email accounts and its Enterprise Learning Management Systems (ELMS), an online space to post assignments and grades, aren’t enough. The answer: to meet students where they are, on Snapchat, Reddit and other apps and platforms.
“These technologies have the potential to really enhance classroom engagement and conversation and can potentially get more people involved,” says information studies Assistant Professor Jessica Vitak, an expert on social media privacy and relationship issues. But “you need to make sure there’s something that social media is providing above and beyond the alternate channels.”
She uses Twitter and Google only as classroom tools, carefully shielding her digital accounts from her students. But others are diving headfirst into the technological current.
Computer science lecturer Nelson Padua-Perez’s introductory courses attract hundreds of students, who are divided into 10 lab sections.
“It is difficult for me to see what is happening on each one,” he says. “However, I thought that students could Snapchat what was going on.” Using the image-sharing app, popular among students because messages disappear after a few seconds, started as a one-off attempt to motivate his students to pay attention and for him to understand what they were up to outside of his classroom—but it brought him enough insight that he plans to keep using it.
As one of only three women in her computer science classes in India, Pooja Sankar M.S. ’04 found it difficult to ask questions. So in 2009, she created Piazza, an online platform to help students learn from each other, with simple ways to input math and computer science symbols and formulas. Today, a million students use it at more than 1,200 schools worldwide. “This is nicest for students who live off campus and can’t form study groups easily, as well as students who work late at night, as I’m not up then” and can’t respond to their questions, says math lecturer Kate Truman.
Few people use their real names in the sprawling world of Reddit’s message boards, so it’s a little surprising to see “JustinWyssGallifent” appear on the UMD page. Wyss-Gallifent, a math senior lecturer, primarily addresses administrative questions, like disputes about grades or how quickly they should expect professors to return assignments. He sometimes looks at threads on unrelated topics too, which “provides great insight into the students as people, not just students,” he says. “I think it’s made it easier for me to communicate with them.”
Community health senior lecturer Sue Reynolds is on campus only two days a week, so she wants to be as accessible as possible for her students. Her solution is the Remind app, which easily lets the whole class know an assignment’s impending deadline or even if traffic will delay her arrival. Students download it, then text a class code to join the group. Why the app over text messages? Students and professors can keep their phone numbers private. (Reynolds also texts, however: If students have a project that requires several rounds of revisions, she says, “I’ll take a picture of it and send it to them so they can see the corrections. They’re getting the turnaround that much sooner.”)
“I firmly believe that the only way technology really works is if you build the class around the technology,” says journalism Associate Professor Ron Yaros, who developed his own custom app that aggregates news, links to class blogs, schedules appointments, administers quizzes and more.
“I’ve eliminated the more traditional aspects of the class,” he says. “I don’t use PowerPoint presentations because all the slides appear on their mobile devices. That way, they won’t be on another site, and they’ll interact with the class a lot more.”
For professors less digitally proficient than Yaros, help is on the way. As the chair of the new Learning Technology Working Group on campus, he says, “We’re working to understand the needs of professors and begin to prioritize what the university can support, instead of everyone doing their own thing.”
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