Tag Archives: Technology

Technology with a purpose

A friend of mine complained today that an undergraduate geography professor is requiring students to sign up for a bunch of social networks – Twitter, Google+, and a few others.  they were told that they have to tweet each other, follow each other, etc., very similar to what we are doing in this class, except with one major difference.  The social media part of the course isn’t mentioned in the syllabus, and the professor has not told the students how tweeting and posting fit in with the objectives of the course.  In a face to face course where students already communicate, the extra social media communications are superfluous.  From what my friend said, the students taking the course are really unhappy.

I think this situation brings up a really important point.  If an instructor wants to incorporate social media tools into a course, they can’t take an “everything but the kitchen sink approach.”  Unless the course is about social media, asking students to sign up and keep track of four or five different accounts, in addition to regular course assignments, is a recipe for disaster (or bad course evaluations).  If the professor doesn’t connect the use of social media to the course objectives, then students will feel that it’s busy work or useless.

Another aspect that troubled my friend was the privacy issue.  He prefers to have a minimal presence online, and he is uncomfortable with the Terms of Use for most social networking sites.  Facebook owns our posts.  Instagram owns our photographs.  Anyone who is concerned about privacy and ownership of content is unable to use social networking sites.  Where does this leave the student, who is required to create an account and sign away these rights in order to participate in the class?

I don’t know what the answer is, but I don’t think the answer is to expect students to sign up for social media because “it’s fun” or “it makes the course more interesting.”  Technology for the sake of technology can’t be the answer.  The use of social media in a course has to be backed up with solid pedagogical reasons.  It has to be clear how social media fits in with the objectives and benefits students in a way that they won’t get from anything else (like an in-class discussion).  Still, what do we do for students with very real concerns about privacy or, God forbid, safety?

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Thinking about WebQuests

I’ve been thinking a lot about how to keep students’ interested.  I am a librarian at a small private liberal arts college, and keeping students interested in library instruction is…well, not an easy task.  Each year, we hold a huge freshmen orientation session where we teach students to use library databases, find items on reserve, check out a book, etc.  It’s not the most exciting lesson to your average eighteen-year-old.  A few years ago, we decided to start setting it up as a scavenger hunt, with the content all based around a theme.  To date, we have used the following themes:

  1. Zombie apocalypse
  2. Pirates
  3. Clue (the board game)
  4. Superheroes
  5. Fairy Tales
  6. Ghost hunters (this year’s theme)

The most successful, by far, was the zombie apocalypse.  Faculty still ask us when we’re going to do the zombies again.  Least successful was Superheroes.  We still haven’t figured out why.  I’m in the process of developing this year’s scavenger hunt (Ghost Hunters), so I’ve been thinking a lot about how to keep students engaged.  As I’ve been working through different ideas, I’ve come to a few realizations about what types of activities keep students interested.

In order to keep students engaged, it has to be something relevant to them.  For example, we thought about basing this year’s scavenger hunt on the old computer game, Oregon Trail.  I talked to several of our student workers – who are around 20-21 years old) – and realized that only one of them had ever heard of Oregon Trail, and none of them had ever played it.  I think we all felt old after that!    The zombie apocalypse worked because of the number of zombie apocalypse books and movies that have been released in the past five years.

The second thing I realized is that the activity can’t be condescending or babyish.  Last year’s scavenger hunt was based on fairy tales.  Even with the number of PG-13 and R-rated fairy tale movies out – like Snow White and the Huntsmen – the students still felt that the theme was too childish.  We weren’t able to make it “adult” enough to appeal to them.

All of this has been in the back of my mind as I started this course.  When I read the WebQuest assignment, the first thing I thought was that my WebQuest had to be interesting.  As I looked through the examples on the SDSU site, I realized more and more that the ones that were the most successful had a theme.  The task that students had to complete fit within that theme and required some creativity.

For example, this WebQuest about Jane Austen asks students to be travel agents and write an itinerary for ghost hunters who are exploring sites related to Pride and Prejudice and Jane Austen.   The WebQuest immerses students in the theme through the images, tasks, and the instructions.  The author of the WebQuest doesn’t step out of the theme at all.  Students have a clear task with a beginning and an end.

While theme is very important in holding students’ interest, creativity is also important.  The most engaging WebQuests that I found required students to complete an assignment that allowed them to exercise creativity.  The least engaging ones, in my opinion, asked students to write an essay or answer a few questions.  For example, this WebQuest on utopias asked students to research different utopian communities and answer a few questions.  Boring!  If I were a student in this class, I would have difficulty staying interested.

The more engaging WebQuests that I found asked students to immerse themselves in the role of travel agent, explorer, detective, or journalist and then research the topic.  The task involved some amount of creativity, such as writing a letter to a fictional character, writing a newspaper article, drawing a map, or something similar.

As I start to work on my WebQuest on genealogy resources, I will be thinking about ways to keep it interesting (both for me and for readers) and creative.