Three Roles for Teachers using Technology

Back in January, I had the privilege of serving on a roundtable entitled Teaching History in the Digital Age at the American Historical Association annual conference. In my talk, "Beyond Classroom Walls: New Boundaries for Teaching and Learning with Digital Tools," I reflected on my own experience defining and redefining boundaries I encountered when I started teaching a US history survey course several years ago. (Slides are available on my SlideShare account.) While my presentation focuses on how I integrated technology and media into my classes in an effort to break down those boundaries, I've thought a bit more about what my new roles are as an educator using technology and social media. These roles have become even more apparent to me as I teach History 697: Creating History in New Media this semester. I've come up with three so far: Instructor as Role Model; Instructor as Tech Support; Instructor as Cheerleader.

Instructor as Role Model

I think any instructor using technology, in the class or out, should think of themselves as a role model for how those technologies can be used for responsible, beneficial goals. One way I do this is to be completely transparent with students regarding my use of technology. I provide links to my blog, my Twitter account, my Flickr account, my YouTube and Vimeo users, my Facebook page, and my instant messenger screennames. I encourage them to follow me, and contact me through any of these methods. I set up rules for contacting me, though, which are followed 99.9% of the time, and that 0.1% is not enough of a problem for me to change my transparency. I also show students how I've used my blog, Twitter feed, and other accounts to build a professional network and share information. While others warn about the ill effects of putting too much of yourself online (which can be true), I try to show students how I use technology to expand my opportunities, not limit them. Overall, I've had positive feedback from students about my openness. I think that I use technology and social media responsibly (though I could work on the efficiency part). Setting an example that students can follow is important if we want those students to be more critical about their use of technology.

Instructor as Tech Support

When utilizing social media and technology in my courses, I've found myself serving as the primary tech support person when students run into trouble. With my tech background, I'm comfortable with this, but I suspect a lot of teachers are not. Explaining the technical aspects of blogging, wikis, RSS, YouTube, and Flickr can take up time spent on other things in class and out, but I think its very important to take on this role. In a lot of cases, support involves me showing students how to find answers to their questions on the Web, on support forums, or other resources. In other cases, support involves me taking 5-10 minutes at the end of class to explain how a particular technology works. While this can be TONS of work, serving as tech support has, I think, given my students more confidence in my ability to teach with and use technology (going back to Instructor as Role Model).

For example, I have an assignment that asks students to research and write an article on Wikipedia. Its not a big article (~500 words), but the assignment does ask a lot from students: Learn how to do proper formatting for Wikipedia, research an article, and try as hard as they can to ensure their article isn't vandalized or deleted AND encourage other users to contribute to the article. Learning these things requires a lot of my time for tech support: Explain how Wikipedia works, how to format footnotes, headings, et cetera, and how to find guidelines to follow if a student's article is up for deletion. This is not the kind of task I'd ask general University tech support, because the assignment is as much about learning these technical things as it is learning about collaborative writing and research. The fact that I can take on a role of tech support helps make the assignment successful.

Instructor as Cheerleader

Out of the three, I think the role of Instructor as Cheerleader is the most important. I really think that there's a lack of cheerleading or positive reinforcement in higher education in general,  particularly when trying to teach students to use new kinds of technology or social media. At the beginning of the semester, usually after the first class when I've introduced all the things we'll be doing with computers, I get a few emails from students saying something to the effect that "I'm not good with all this computer stuff." And they probably aren't; I'm not convinced that this generation, like previous generations, is that tech savvy. But I do think every student I have is capable of becoming more proficient with technology than before they entered my class, and can learn how to use the technology they're exposed to every day in new, meaningful, efficient ways.

The prospect of editing a Wikipedia article, to go back to that example, is a strange (and sometimes frightening) proposition for my students. Learning how to format footnotes in Wikipedia, insert images, write the proper code for headings and bulleted lists can be daunting to many, let alone connecting with a few dozen completely unknown Wikipedians to discuss the merits of their articles as some face deletion. Encouragement and genuine interest in the success of each students project is imperative, as is patience. There may be some hand-holding involved as students negotiate with sometime rude Wikipedia admins (I've done this) or spending some extra time during office hours explaining wiki formatting while encouraging student that they are in fact smart enough to do all this computer stuff (I've also done this). Pointing out successes in class, even if its as simple as successfully inserting a YouTube clip into a blog post, goes a long way to get students vested in the assignments and class as a whole.

Results

All of these roles help me accomplish one of my goals in class: Help my students become more savvy, more responsible consumers and producers of media and technology. I think trading of some time covering some particular historical topic to teach students how to extend learning beyond my classroom is more than worth it. In the end, I get more students interested in exploring history and help shape more responsible social technology users. Even if I only influence a handful of students, I'll consider my class a success.

I'm still going to think about these roles, refine them, and perhaps come up with more as my teaching evolves. I probably missed a few roles that you think are important, or your courses may be different enough to warrant different roles when using technology in class. What others have you acquired while teaching with technology? What are the drawbacks and merits of them?