Weekly Teaching Note
Feb 29 2012
Which Tool? ... Blackboard? Google Apps? Something else?

Yesterday, the Center for Teaching and Learning hosted a workshop on digital tools that can be used to enhance learning. Four faculty members with expertise in Blackboard (Bb) and Google Apps shared some strategies they use to increase student engagement and learning and answered questions from the other participants about how to achieve certain pedagogical goals using these tools. Here, I share some of the ideas generated at the workshop. Thanks to Dan Quigley, College of Arts and Sciences, and to Kate O’Hara, Stan Silverman, and Mike Uttendorfer, all in the School of Education, for sharing their experiences.

Our panelists prefer Google Apps as a tool for facilitating group work. Do you want your students to write a paper or create a presentation collaboratively? Edit one another’s writing? Collect and analyze data? Google Sites or Google Documents can be used to organize contributions from multiple students, much as you might use the wiki tool in Blackboard. Google Docs includes a word processor, a presentation tool, a spreadsheet, and a form generator that deposits information into a spreadsheet.

Google Forms are especially versatile – the four faculty on the panel use the tool for attendance, for gathering information in one place (e.g., students' choice of topics for papers), for quizzes and anonymous surveys, and as a way for students to get to know one another. This last technique is employed by Stan Silverman, who asks students to answer a series of questions about themselves. All the students can view each others' responses on the spreadsheet, and Stan uses their responses to selected questions in the survey as a way to sort his students into groups.

Blackboard does have tools for groups, and many of those tools can link directly to the grade center. However, as Mike Uttendorfer pointed out, if students are sharing documents back and forth the groups tool in Bb will result in multiple copies of a document at different stages of completion, while Google Apps will maintain a single document, with a history of changes and the ability to revert to an earlier version. 

One innovative idea for integrating the two suites of tools is to embed the Google documents, drawings, forms, etc. on a content page in Bb.  Kate O’Hara, who shared this idea, said it makes the Bb pages more visually appealing to students, and the students can use Google Apps from within the Bb environment. This strategy has the added advantage of giving the student a wider variety of tools to use, and familiarity with Google Apps gives them a skill they can use in a professional setting.

One of the recurring themes during the workshop was how to organize course materials. Mike Uttendorfer does this within Bb by creating a content page for each week/unit of the course, and giving that page a consistent structure each week. The page starts with a weekly 'roadmap' that includes the learning objectives, activities, resources, and approximate time required to complete each task. Folders on the page keep resource materials and activities grouped together, and each unit ends with a self-assessment for the students, so they can gauge their mastery of the material. Frequent use of anonymous surveys helps Mike gather feedback about the course design and any difficulties the students might be having with the material.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a video is worth an essay. Several of the faculty use short screencasts to give students a tour of the virtual environment, directions on how to do things, feedback on student work, and to convey content. Dan Quigley asks his students to use a free screencasting tool (two popular tools are Jing – http://www.jingproject.com – and Screencast-O-Matic – http://www.screencast-o-matic.com) to provide narration for a slide presentation, as a way to move student presentations online. It is a good idea to provide students with several options when using this approach, because the computers they have at home are going to have a range of ability with respect to the technologies they can support.

A third thread to the conversation was synchronous activities. Students learn best with a blend of asynchronous and synchronous activities – regardless of whether the synchronous activities occur online or in person – especially when the learning that happens in one venue is reinforced in the other. We had a wide-ranging discussion of different tools that are available, each of which has different strengths and limitations. Dan Quigley made an excellent point: when starting out, keep your (and your students') expectations realistic. If you want to experiment with a synchronous online format like a webinar, it might be best to do so as an enhancement to a course that meets in person – that way if the technology doesn't work as advertised, you have the regular class meeting as a backup.

As you can see, there are lots of choices out there. Ultimately, the best choice is the one that allows you to answer “yes” to these questions:

  • Does this tool measurably improve teaching and learning?
  • Will this tool help my students become more engaged with the course material?
  • Does this tool make my work or that of my students easier and more efficient?
  • Is this tool "better enough" than what I am currently using to justify the time and effort required to learn it?
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