Things We Learned While Teaching About Technology in the Classroom

A Hacking the Academy piece by Washington University-St. Louis Liberman Fellows Tanya Roth (Consulting Fellow/PhD candidate in history), Bryn Lutes (Senior Fellow/PhD Candidate in Chemistry), and Rajbir Hazelwood (Junior Fellow/PhD candidate in history).

Between the three of us, we’ve learned a few things in recent years about using technology in the classroom. We’re the current fellows responsible for creating and teaching Washington University-St. Louis’s Graduate Student Technology Workshop Series (GSTW). We’ve each been involved in the program in various ways since about 2007, and each of our experiences’ have been tempered by our disciplines (chemistry and history), our status as grad students (the New PhD, the Almost PhD, and the Recent ABD), and our relationship to technology and teaching more broadly.

These workshops have changed a lot over the past thirteen years since they began, but one thing has remained constant: our dedication to helping participants understand that it’s not necessarily all about the flashy technology. At heart, what’s really important – always has been, always will be – are your goals as an educator.

That’s where it all begins – and ends. Pedagogy, then tools


Each year, the GSTW sessions invite participants to dabble with new tools, consider their own relationship to technology, reflect on teaching philosophies, and above all, learn from one another. This is peer-led learning and teaching at its best. All participants are graduate students. They come at diverse stages of their academic careers, and from all over the sciences, humanities, and engineering (even some from fine arts and the medical school). Some will spend their graduate degrees teaching or serving as a teaching assistant every semester. Others may never set foot in the classroom as an instructor until after they finish their programs.

And that’s not even talking about what they come knowing, not knowing, or even presuming,  about technology.

Instructing these workshops has been an eye-opener for all of us. Here are some of the things we’ve learned in our efforts to teach fellow grad students how to use technology effectively in the classroom (or in their research, or in the job search, or even just for fun):

1.If you’re in the humanities and believe that everyone in science and engineering is a techie, rethink that. If you’re in the sciences and believe that everyone in the humanities is a techie, you need to really rethink that.

2. As Yoda might say, “First your goals you must know. THEN apply the technology you should.”

3. Assume nothing – both of the instructors to whom you are introducing new technology tools, AND of your undergraduate students and their techie know-how. You know what they say about assuming things, how it makes an – well, you know what we mean.

4. Free tools FTW!

5. When teaching about technology, think of one practical classroom application for every tool you show – preferably with examples from different disciplines.

6. Encourage graduate student graduate to think BIG, and explore the possibilities all these tools offer for a twenty-first century classroom. BUT at the same time remember that it’s important to be discriminating when it comes to selecting which tools to apply, and when. Being selective further helps graduate student instructors match tools to their own teaching goals.

7.  Emphasize the importance of just knowing about the tools.  Your students will have a harder time thinking you are as stuffy as your subject matter if you appear to be aware of the world outside the classroom 🙂

Because our workshops have focused on ultimate goals as an educator and not on “how do I use technology to present molecular orbital theory” or “how do I use technology to lead a discussion about the British Empire”, we begin our workshops AWAY from technology with a discussion about goals and current technology use by the participants. For a number of participants, this is the first opportunity they have had to think about and discuss their goals as educators. For us as leaders, this was our eye-opening moment where we realized that these goals were similar across all disciplines.

Last year we started using these goals/pedagogical themes to organize workshop content and put it into context for the participants.  The five pedagogical themes we covered were collaboration, using audiovisual resources, networking outside the classroom, organization, and logistics (including electronic office hours).

By providing this broader context, participants begin to see more clearly just what they have in common with one another. Interdisciplinary conversations about the use of technology in the classroom help everyone view their personal challenge from a different angle and strengthen the university community as a whole.

The academy’s traditional approach to teaching graduate students how to teach often is to set us all out on our own to learn as we go. While learning by experience has been – and always will be – a great method to learn how to teach, this workshop series shows the possibilities of hacking academic tradition by encouraging graduate students to share and articulate their own teaching philosophies in a welcoming and dynamic environment. Beyond learning about technology, the conversations in these workshops encourage graduate students to think more clearly about their teaching goals and relationship to the classroom as a whole. By coming together and engaging with other graduate students – in and out of our own fields – we learn from each other, hacking the academy by offering a new, collaborative approach to integrating technology.

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