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.


Hacking the Dissertation Process

At my first American Historical Association Annual Meeting in January 2008, I attended a session about writing the dissertation. As a grad student about to defend a dissertation prospectus and anticipating a lot of time in the archives to research that project, I was anxious to hear what the panelists had to offer about the dissertation process. In particular, I wanted to know how they organized their sources – how they handled the behind-the-scenes logistics of archival research coupled with the actual writing.

I was more than a little disappointed by the end of the session.

It wasn’t that the panelists didn’t offer tips for organizing research materials. It was that none of the panelists seemed to have a clue about the many technological resources available to dissertating graduate students – nor did they seem to think such resources were worth evaluating. Instead, we heard about file cabinet draws filled with folders and papers, handwritten notes, and scribbled ideas.

I do not mean to suggest that these non-digital processes are useless. As a PhD candidate about to defend a dissertation in the coming year, I understand that these are exactly the processes that my advisors and the other faculty in my department relied on for years. File cabinets and legal pads full of scrawled ideas, transcriptions, and neatly-ordered index cards about sources are exactly how our mentors prepared, wrote, and revised their dissertations.

But it would be foolish for any faculty member today to suggest the same processes to their graduate students. Do such “hard copy” methods work? Is there a place for file cabinets of resources and ideas in our home offices? Yes – to both questions. But at the very least, such tried-and-true methods should be used in tandem with newer, more effective digital processes.

All graduate students, regardless of discipline, need hands-on exposure to and training on tools and processes most relevant to their field.While some departments give their grad students primers on how to conduct research at archives and how to organize and execute large projects, these skills are not taught widely enough. As digital tools and processes continue to offer larger benefits for such projects, it is increasingly important to make sure grad students understand what’s out there and how these resources and ideas can help them with their own research.

To do this, the first step is to make grad students – and faculty – aware of the ways in which technology already mediates their research and writing processes. Acknowledging this fact can make the prospect of learning new tools less daunting. For example, it’s difficult to find a grad student these days who hasn’t emailed a professor or expert in their field. Calls for conference proposals and articles typically want e-mailed responses, while more and more granting organizations have moved to online submission processes as well. At our home institutions, we use online library catalogs and databases to find sources and request interlibrary loans almost everyday.

In short: we all have the basic technological literacy we need to hack the dissertation process, whether you’re the writer or the faculty advisor. Here are just a few of the next steps and tools every grad student should know to use technology effectively in their dissertation process.

1. Hacking the Archives.
Many of our first encounters with archives are digital: online finding aids, the organization’s website with its contact information, and resources like ArchivesWiki. Once inside the archive, however, tools like digital cameras and scanners can help researchers capture information in much more effective and cheaper ways. Instead of photocopying reams of pages or trying to transcribe text as quickly as possible, a digital camera allows researchers to capture these pages more quickly and at no cost (aside from purchasing a basic camera – nothing fancy needed).  While some researchers protest that they’d rather sit and read the sources, rather than photographing everything in sight, the reality is that a digital camera can make it possible to make better use of limited archival time. Graduate students need to learn how to use digital cameras and scanners effectively in the archives to maximize their productivity and their access to vital sources that will inform their project.

2. Hacking the Logistics
Index cards are so 1985. Software programs like Adobe allows you to convert your archive photos to PDFs, easily combining multiple photos into a single document, for example. But then there’s still no need to print all that info: instead, programs like Zotero make it easy to catalog your sources and tag them with identifiers that will help you retrieve them easily (for example: I tag all my sources by decade and topic, and will soon add tags based on the chapter for which I want to use the source). Searchable notes also help you find things you may remember seeing, but can’t place exactly. Such organizational programs tend to be user-friendly, but many grad students continue to tell me they have difficulty with their first encounters with these programs. There’s no reason why such software programs could not be taught in any basic methodologies classroom as part of the foundation of our graduate education.

3. Hacking the Writing and Editing Process
The processes and tools in the research and organization stages continue to play an important part as graduate students write and edit their dissertations. Zotero – and many other similar programs – make it easy to insert bibliographies into a document. Websites like 750 Words offer a way to get you writing on a daily basis so you can create long-term, productive habits. Online groups and forums offer support (and humor) for the dissertating student. Google Docs makes collaboration and commenting on written work easy and can offer an excellent way for advisors and writing groups to give feedback. Faculty need to be aware of these resources and make their students aware of them early on: establishing good habits and solid support networks, plus forums for feedback, can help students remain both motivated and moving forward.

Not every tool or process will work for every grad student. Some archives will prohibit digital cameras or scanners, and scholars working in non-Roman scripts may find that Zotero and other tools still don’t offer what they need all the time. Learning to navigate these technical resources and processes will still require a learning curve. Hacking the dissertation process will also probably require many students to move outside of their comfort zones to try new options until they find what they need. Faculty can help their grad students in these efforts just as they help grad students evaluate research topics and ideas.

There’s no reason why teaching graduate students about digital tools and processes should be separate from learning more “traditional” topics in grad school, such as writing a historiographical essay or an article. All of this works together.

It’s time to teach grad students at all levels – and undergrads – about the numerous digital tools and processes that offer very real benefits to anyone preparing or writing a large project such as a thesis or dissertation. While the benefits will vary from person to person and discipline to discipline, digital tools and processes can enhance productivity, optimize information retrieval efforts, contribute to effective time management, and reduce stress.

…not to mention the physical mess that comes from piles of papers in your workspace.