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Encouraging Students to Use Technology

Robert Harris
Version Date: March 11, 1997

One of the specific educational goals at many colleges is for students to achieve technological competence, by which is usually meant facility with the tools of information technology. Here are some ideas and techniques that will encourage the achievement of this goal. A particularly attractive factor of these techniques is that most are self-assessing: completion of the assignment by the student demonstrates that the student can use the tool or perform the skill.

1. Require students to use email to send at least some of their homework, papers, projects, comments, questions, or assessments. A useful assignment is to have students write and mail a narrative evaluation of a paper, reading, or class session they completed. Email can be used effectively by requiring students to submit paper topics early in the term. The professor can simply use the reply function to make comments and suggestions.

2. Use email to send students individual assignments or comments and require that they respond to the assignment (even if it means merely printing out the letter or replying to it). Comments about papers, in-class presentations, or current grade status can be sent to students, together with a request for a response. For small classes, unique regular or extra credit assignments can be sent through email only, followed, if necessary, by a brief mention in class ("Did you check your email recently?").

Commentary: Email dialog between professor and student has been discovered to have numerous benefits in addition to making sure the student learns how to use email. Here are some of them:

3. Require students to get assignments online. Post assignments or other information on a web page, intranet page, or shared drive folder. Particular sites with pertinent information might be mentioned in class or listed in an assignment or syllabus, with the requirement that students visit them and obtain certain information from them.

4. Use electronic reserves. Instead of photocopying materials for library reserves, put those readings on your class web page for students to read. That way, students do not have to go to the library to read the reserve material, several students can read it at the same time, and you can leave it on reserve indefinitely or update it regularly. The electronic format not only gives students practice in using technology, but it can simplify their use of the material by allowing them to cut and paste quotations with their word processor. (Note: Be sure to secure the appropriate permissions to post any copyrighted material. You may wish to ask for permission to post only to the campus intranet rather than to the Internet at large. Get all such permissions in writing and include a declaration of permission and notice of copyright on each page or document posted.) E-reserves can include documents, pictures, video, audio, or links to materials from libraries, museums, or other sites all over the world.

5. Require students to search the Internet and make use of one or more Internet sources as part of their research assignments. Books, journals, newspapers, magazines, organizational sites, corporate sites, museums, and a host of other information sources provide a truly staggering amount of useful information. (But plan also to discuss source evaluation with your students because some show a surprising lack of caution in accepting as true whatever they find. As part of their research, you might have them locate some articles on the Net relating to source evaluation or direct them to my article, "Evaluating Internet Research Sources".)

6. Require students to make use of one or more articles in electronic form as part of their research assignments. These forms are usually on CD-ROM and include encyclopedias, magazines, newspapers, and various abstracts and databases.

7. Require students to find research information through other specified technologies, such as online library catalogs, CD-ROM indexes, microform materials, videocassette sources, etc.

8. Require students to subscribe to an Internet mailing list relevant to the class and to turn in one or more useful postings together with an evaluation of it and the mailing list in general. You might even require that the students propose a posting of their own.

9. Require that all papers be written using word processing software. Require the use of some additional functions, such as headlines or subheads, font changes, drop caps, tables, graphs, inserted pictures, boxes, and so on. Help students to stretch themselves and their knowledge of how the word processor can help them present information in a clearer, more effective way. (Note: Make the requirements specific to the skill you want demonstrated. For example, "Present your data in an outlined table inserted into the text and not attached at the end").

10. Require that students use presentation technology such as overhead projectors, data projectors, presentation software, or VCR's for assigned in-class presentations.

11. Include spreadsheet and graphing assignments relevant to your course material. Remember that spreadsheets will do averages, percentages, forecasting, goal seeking, trendlines, graphing, correlation, comparison charts. A physical education class might have students graph times or scores, a business class might chart stocks. Any class that has several grades (quizzes, exams, papers, homework) can require students to keep their own point scores on a spreadsheet and turn it in from time to time. Comment: Not only will the use of a spreadsheet give students technological skill, but it will increase their number fluency, something needed by many students.

12. Require students to create their own Web pages and to post their papers or reports to them. Not only will they learn to use technology for the dissemination of information, but they will have a lesson in sharing the fruits of their intellectual labors, and perhaps be more motivated by the thought of a larger audience than the professor.

General comment: Many students take to technology avidly. But perhaps a third are less enthusiastic, and, given the chance, will avoid it. Therefore, in order to accomplish the technology-use goal, it is important to (1) make the use of technology required of all students in the class and (2) make assignments and performance expectations clear and specific, so that students know exactly what is wanted. (For example, "You must send me by noon Thursday an email describing your topic and plan of procedure, in at least three paragraphs.") Take a few minutes in class and/or in the form of handouts to instruct students how to perform the skill you want them to exhibit. As with most kinds of assignment, vagueness creates fear and loathing. You may need to take more time now for instruction than you will in a couple of years, when students are more techno-literate. But if every professor trains students a bit more, and if every professor incorporates some of these requirements in each class, students will quickly become adept with the tools of information technology. 


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About the author:
Robert Harris is a writer and educator with more than 25 years of teaching experience at the college and university level. RHarris at virtualsalt.com