My students can vouch for the fact that I’m a technophile. Over the last few years, I’ve asked students at various times to submit work via the Digital Dropbox in Blackboard, submit work via email attachment, participate in discussion boards in Blackboard, keep a blog of their own, contribute to a class blog, and use Zotero. This semester I’m asking students in my writing-intensive course to use Google Documents for their work, and I’m asking students in my upper-level seminar to contribute to a class blog and to use Zotero Groups (thanks to Sean Takats for the latter idea).
I teach Political Science–specifically, Political Theory. I’m not in a technical field. Why would I demand that students make use of digital tools in my courses?
My students might wonder that, too. There are several reasons why I do it. The first is a practical reason:
- Many of my students will end up in jobs that require them to be comfortable handling information electronically. Though most are reasonably comfortable working with Microsoft Word and handling email attachments, I’ve had a few who aren’t. Making students use the tools in my courses gives them a chance to become more familiar with how to use them.
The other reasons pertain to particular goals I have for my students:
- I want them to understand that scholarship, even when individually produced, is embedded in a context. That is, it’s part of a conversation. Learning to use Zotero to provide proper credit to their sources is one way that students can gain an appreciation for that fact. Participating in a discussion board or contributing to class blog can serve the same function in a more informal way; whether students are responding directly to each other or to texts that they’ve read, they’re engaging in conversation.
- I want them to realize that even individually-produced scholarship can involve collaboration. I don’t ask my students to co-author papers. Especially in my writing-intensive course, they’re still working on developing their own voice. That doesn’t mean, however, that collaboration isn’t necessary. All of us can benefit from having others read and comment on our work. That’s part of the reason many of us attend professional conferences, right? Making use of Google Documents for peer review gives my students the opportunity to both give and receive such feedback. Using Zotero Groups also allows students to see one another’s work at various stages. (George commented a while back on the benefits of having students show their work to each other.)
- I want them to gain confidence in their own ability to learn. In most of my courses, I do a session with students on locating and evaluating sources. Using tools such as Google Scholar (or other databases) to locate sources, and tools such as Zotero to store them, mark them up, and credit them appropriately gives students practice in sifting through and assimilating material. Often enough we begin the writing process not because we know something, but because we want to learn something. Finding, evaluating, and using sources is an important way that we do that in the academy.
- I want them to let go of some of their fear of failure. Few disasters are completely irreparable. The key is to make sure you can always go back to where you started from, and try again. This is one of the reasons I ask students to use Google Documents. Because it keeps track of revisions automatically, students needn’t be afraid to move a phrase, a sentence, or even a whole paragraph around, nor need they worry about the computer crashing and destroying their work, or about accidentally overwriting a newer version of a file with an older one. Because they really can’t “break” a document they’re already reasonably happy with, they can feel completely free to experiment. If the changes they try don’t work, they can always revert to a previous version without having to be concerned about how to reconstruct it.
The use of digital tools isn’t the only way to accomplish these goals, of course, but it’s a way that fits well with my particular teaching style and skills.
Do you integrate digital tools into your teaching, and if so, why?