How Faculty Can Increase Student Engagement in the Classroom Through the Use of Emerging Technology and Digital Media
November 18–19, 2016
Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College, and Spelman College
In an unsigned article in the Economist, entitled “Not What It Used to Be: American Universities Represent Declining Value for Money to Their Students” (2012), the author argues that rising tuition costs and fees, decreasing financial aid, and increasing student debt of students and institutions, bring to question whether a traditional college education is a good investment. Technology is extremely expensive and, without a good infrastructure, is limited and unreliable. Most traditional colleges and universities in the U.S. continue to teach in the same manner they did several decades ago. As a result, many online, hybrid, and distributed colleges and universities have capitalized on the inability of most brick and mortar institutions to change and meet our students where they are in engaging and more meaningful ways.
While more U.S. colleges and universities are offering some online or hybrid courses, most cannot compete with their accredited, online counterparts. Online institutions typically offer comprehensive degree programs in a greater number of fields, often with international faculty, greater engagement, and at significantly less cost to the student. College students today have grown up with technology and are simply not willing to reduce their level of engagement by putting away their devices to learn, when they can attend online programs for less money and use their own devices, while often connecting globally.
Students’ use of smartphones, video cams, video games, digital music players, laptops, iPods, and other devices is something faculty cannot deny in the classroom. If students are using Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Symbaloo, Diigo, Skype, and/or blogs, why not find a way to integrate some of them into a course? Research indicates that smartphones and other mobile devices help students to connect with each other immediately, increasing student engagement time, and intensifying the concept of a shared learning experience (Boyce et al., 2014). The difference between colleges and universities with growing enrollments, and those with stagnant or decreasing enrollments, just may be high impact and diverse instructional strategies that reflect the demands of what many call “digital natives.” According to Mark Prensky (2012), author of From Digital Natives to Digital Wisdom, “Today’s average college grads have spent less than 5,000 hours of their lives reading, but over 10,000 hours playing video games (not to mention 20,000 hours of watching TV)” (p. 68). With this in mind, the purpose of this article is to examine the ways in which faculty can increase student engagement through the use of emerging technology and digital media.
Located in the heart of Atlanta, Clark Atlanta University (CAU) is a single, comprehensive, urban, private, coeducational United Methodist-affiliated, Historically Black College and University (HBCU) in the United States. The campus has 38 areas of study in four major schools, including the Schools of Arts and Sciences, Business, Education, and Social Work. The university also has an award-winning Center for Cancer Research and Therapeutic Development, and enjoys more than 3,500 undergraduate and graduate students of diverse racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds. CAU offers certificate, professional, and degree programs from BA/BS to EdD/PhD. The president of CAU, Ronald A. Johnson, became the fourth president on July 1, 2015, since the school has changed names. (Before 1988, what became Clark Atlanta University was two institutions: Atlanta University and Clark College, established in 1865 and 1869 respectively.) CAU is one of 5 schools that compose the Atlanta University Center. The other four schools include Spelman College, Morehouse College, the Interdenominational Theological Center, and the Morehouse School of Medicine.
Strategically placed across from the Student Center, and within one block of the Woodruff Library, the Center for Faculty and Professional Development (CFPD), led by Dr. Gwendolyn Mitchell, and staffed by the wondrous Allison Legister and Omar Harbison, generously offers tailor-made teaching and learning technology workshops for faculty at various stages of development. Weeklong faculty training is offered in the summer, with shorter training offered throughout the year. As members of one of the Faculty Resource Network (FRN) participating institutions, faculty can write proposals to attend professional development seminars, symposia, conferences, and summer residencies sponsored by New York University in the winter, summer, and fall. In addition, faculty can apply for UNCF funding or SoTL (Scholarship of Teaching and Learning) for small grants to improve teaching and learning, and creatively use technology to improve student engagement. This article came about through a collaborative poster session presented by CFPD director Dr. Gwendolyn Mitchell, Dr. Shawn Bulloch from the Mass Media Arts department, Dr. Emmett Ward, who is a May 2017 doctoral graduate from the department of Educational Leadership, Mr. Tavis Richardson, a graduate of the Masters program in EL and a teacher at Fain Elementary School in DeKalb County, Metro Atlanta, and myself, professor in the department of Educational Leadership and Higher Education. The collaborative poster session was presented at the FRN Winter Symposium on November 19, 2017, at Spelman College, in Atlanta, GA. All presenters were skilled in engaging students with technology and/or digital media, in their respective schools and departments. This article is an extension of the poster session.
Challenges and Strategies for Engaging Students
Colleges and universities, particularly traditional institutions, continue to face challenges keeping up with emerging technologies and meeting the demands of their increasingly diverse student populations. Some of these challenges are systematic, while others are related to the absence or limitations of technology, within and outside of the classroom.
Faculty face many challenges in the college classroom, as students become more diverse, with varying levels of interest, knowledge, and experience with technology. First, faculty need professional development to be trained on the use of technology. In many colleges and universities, there is a lack of ongoing faculty professional development, so many faculty do not know how to effectively use technology in their classrooms. To be effective, faculty need to be trained over a period of time, with ongoing professional development, learning, using, and integrating emerging technologies that meet their course needs. These needs range from development of pedagogy to student assessment. In “6 Technology Challenges Facing Education,” David Nagel (2013) writes, “All too often, when schools mandate the use of a specific technology, teachers are left without the tools (and often skills) to effectively integrate the new capabilities into their teaching methods.” He goes on to say, “The results are that the new investments are underutilized, not used at all, or used in a way that mimics an old process, rather than innovating new processes that may be more engaging for students” (2). This is evident in training sessions, when the same dozen or so faculty members attend each time. Strategies for faculty are only going to be effective if institutions establish and run effective and well-staffed faculty and professional development centers, with knowledgeable staff who have real-world experience with technology, relevant to teaching, learning, and research. To maximize effectiveness, colleges and universities also need to provide dedicated spaces for faculty to learn, work, and experiment outside of their offices, where work is difficult because of students dropping in and needing some type of assistance. When faculty are given space to be creative, it helps to promote new ideas, because faculty can collaborate across disciplines, and feed off and learn from each other. This provides fertile ground for increase innovation and intentionality in teaching, learning, and research.
The second challenge for faculty is that many are impervious to change of any kind. They feel that they have taught a certain way for a long time and students have been successful in their academic programs, so why fix what they feel is not broken? Some also cite “academic freedom” as justification for why they do not have to change the way they teach. Many institutions are now requiring faculty to “infuse technology” in their courses, but provide few, if any, guidelines on what constitutes “infused technology” or how to go about changing what and how they have taught for years. Fear of the unknown and of spending large amounts of time learning new technologies can be extremely overwhelming, especially when faculty have large workloads and contractually obligated research.
When faculty are concerned about their competencies with technology, they may sometimes fail to properly and/or fully integrate technology in their courses, which can result in little if any feedback, lack of student engagement, poor implementation, and ineffective assessment. This one initial failure will sometimes cause faculty to resist any more attempts at using technology in their courses, apart from interactive PowerPoints. However, this does not have to be the case. One strategy for faculty would be to see this as a challenge to obtain more training and work harder to better integrate technology in their courses. Faculty could also use this as a “researchable moment.” In other words, they may conduct an informal study of the implementation of technology in one section of their course while teaching the second section of the same course using traditional methods, and then compare the two to see which course produced greater student learning outcomes. Some faculty, including this researcher, are already doing just that, with SoTL grants to develop evidence-based methods for intentional change of instructional delivery, in an effort to discover and reflect upon how instructional delivery can improve student learning outcomes.
The third challenge for faculty is the need to differentiate learning and to personalize instruction to meet the needs of their particular group of students. All students are not created equal and faculty need to be aware of how the particular group of students in each class learn best. One strategy may be to utilize clickers in class, and informally quiz students at various points of instruction, in order to gage whether students understand what the professor is teaching. This is relatively simple. The questions are predetermined and uploaded to the clicker software; faculty can ask multiple choice or true and false questions. Students will, in a matter of seconds, touch the letter on their clicker that corresponds to the answer, and the faculty member will instantly know the number of correct responses and also the percentage distribution of the responses. So if the answer is “C” and more than a third of the students picked “B,” then the professor knows what needs greater clarification. In addition, the anonymity can encourage greater student participation.
Logistically, this researcher is aware of one limitation to implementing such strategies. On most campuses, syllabi must be submitted prior to the start of the semester, so how can faculty determine which instructional technologies to use before class, when they have not yet met with students to assess their learning styles or the rhythm of the course? The answer is simple: you “turn on a dime” and use a different instructional approach to best reach your students, or you strategically select students for pair-share, or build learning communities. In well-developed learning communities, students feel a sense of belonging and the learning experience reaches beyond the classroom. In addition, they can increase the student comfort in voicing opinions and ideas that can lead to deeper critical thinking, as well as to synthesizing the views of other classmates.
Oftentimes, students engage more meaningfully around the content, creating a rich learning environment, because the professor is not censoring their exchange of ideas. The options you can choose to implement are plentiful. But the beauty of teaching is that you should not be “the sage on the stage.” Faculty, in most courses and especially graduate courses, need to be the “guide on the side.” By reviewing Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning Objectives (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001) faculty know that the highest level of learning is Evaluation, and that can be incorporated by allowing students to teach part of the lesson and defend their judgments (Morshead, 1965). At the same time, students in the class can ask questions and critique student presentations. For larger classes, this can be done in groups, provided you ensure every student participates. Full participation can be achieved by asking each student to evaluate the members of the group. They will typically tell faculty who did what and most especially who did not.
Instruction must be differentiated for each individual class, allowing for changes in instructional approaches along the way, using technology. On the first day of class and in the syllabus, faculty must state that various technologies for instruction and for demonstrating student learning will be implemented, based on the ebb and flow of the course, and the needs of the students. This enables the professor to regroup as often as needed, as they get a sense of how best to deliver instruction.
The fourth challenge, as mentioned in the first challenge, is that faculty need dedicated space to learn how to use technology in the classroom and which tools are best for their specific class. And to be most effective, faculty need to share their experiences with others. In many institutions, faculty tend to work in silos, which prevents others from learning from their experiences. Often, this is not intentional. Faculty explore opportunities available to them and then act accordingly. Collaborating can take a great deal of patience, and some faculty find it too frustrating. Because faculty teach on different days and times, and have different office hours, it is not inevitable that they will “run into” colleagues with whom they might have an informal discussion about teaching, unless they happen to attend the same meeting. And faculty rarely write or develop curriculum in their offices, because it requires deep, uninterrupted thought, which cannot take place when office doors are open and students are plentiful. Furthermore, funding for grants and scholarships has dwindled except in specific areas, such as STEM. Many faculty in fields outside of STEM need to more vigorously compete for grants, and this can lead to faculty silos. Some successful strategies institutions have used include sharing technological advances. This often requires a large, dedicated space or building if the institution has significant resources and philanthropic support. For example, as described in Eric Kunnen’s 2015 article, “Emerging Technologies to Enhance Teaching and Enable Active Learning,” Grand Valley State University opened an absolutely stunning, $65 million, Mary Idema Pew Library Learning and Information Commons in 2013. The Library provides informal learning spaces, with the goal of maximizing student and faculty engagement, through high quality and dynamic environments that are conducive for learning. Lee Van Orsdel, the Dean of the University Libraries, stated that the university design is “radically student-centered.” Also within the Library is the Atomic Object Technology Showcase, which intentionally focuses on educational technology, and provides inviting spaces for students and faculty to work with, explore, and learn different technologies. According to Kunnen, “The showcase intentionally infuses technology into the new library and learning commons as an informal learning opportunity” (2).
In Reinventing Higher Education: The Promise of Innovation (2011), Ben Wildavsky argues that higher education institutions desperately need to come up with fresh ideas and innovations, as well as strategies to reduce rising costs, if they are to successfully retool to meet the changing population of students in the future. It is clear that teaching and learning must also change to meet the demands of the growing, technologically savvy, student consumer.
There are many amazing examples across the country of technological spaces where faculty garner assistance in creating effective courses that increase student engagement through the use of emerging technology and digital media. However, I want to leave you with some resources that can get you started on the journey towards the knowledge, use, and integration of technology in your classrooms. One of my two favorite resources is the Teach with Technology essay series, which is free and online. The website provides a collection of various articles that are primarily practitioner-based and offer many different examples of how faculty have successfully integrated technology in their classrooms. On this website, you can also download, for free, the book, Teaching with Technology, Volume 2: The Stories Continue, edited by Clark and Clouser. The second resource is MERLOT, which also offers online access to peer-reviewed, multi-disciplinary resources for learning and online teaching. Together these resources will inform and inspire the motivated reader to begin engaging students in the classroom through the use of emerging technology and digital media.
In summary, the first innovative practice for promoting technology in the classroom must address the trained faculty member’s disposition towards the use of technology, so that the use of technology will factor into their learning outcomes and be evident on the course syllabus. It also includes developing faculty members’ technological savvy in the context of teaching and learning practices, both inside and outside of the classroom. The second innovative practice follows from the first, and encompasses the ways in which faculty members allow their students to demonstrate learning in class and on required course assignments. Giving students a choice among multiple technological methods for course assignment delivery enhances student interest, and engages them in their learning, which in turn increases learning outcomes and improves academic achievement.
Anderson, L. W., Krathwohl, D. R., et al. (Eds.). (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing: A revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of educational objectives. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
Baker, A.A., & Ryalls, E. (2014). Technologizing feminist pedagogy: Using blog activism in the gender studies classroom. Feminist Teacher, 25(1), 23-38.
Benn, A. A., Kane, F. V., Carden, R. R., Fowlie, J. J., Francis, S. S., and Wakefield, C. (2016). Engage the students with learning: A new approach for an old challenge. Proceedings of the European Conference On E-Learning, 81-88.
Boyce, E., Mishra, C., Halverson, K., & Thomas, A. (2014). Getting students outside: Using technology as a way to stimulate engagement. Journal Of Science Education & Technology, 23(6), 815-829. Doi: 10.1007/s10956-014-9514-8
Economist (Dec. 2012). Not what it used to be: American universities represent declining value for money to their students. Retrieved from: http://www.economist.com/news/united-states/21567373-american-universities-represent-declining-value-money-their-students-not-what-it
Kunnen, E. (2015). Emerging technologies to enhance teaching and enable active learning. Educause Review. Retrieved from: http://er.educause.edu/articles/2015/8/emerging-technologies-to-enhance-teaching-and-enable-active-learning
Nagel, D. (June 2013). 6 technology challenges facing education. THE Journal. Retrieved from: https://thejournal.com/articles/2013/06/04/6-technology-challenges-facing-education.aspx
Prensky, M. (2012). From digital natives to digital wisdom: Hopeful essays for 21st century learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin SAGE.
Wildavsky, B. (2011). Reinventing Higher Education: The Promise of Innovation. Harvard Education Press: Cambridge, MA.