technology in the classroom

It’s pretty common to see opinion pieces blasting faculty for not using technology in the classroom.  I know one semester my student reviews blasted me for not using powerpoint or equivalent.  I might rant in person about these things, but it’s not post-worthy.  However, a Chronicle article shows some actual data.

course management systems

First off, only 72% of respondents use course management systems (CMS) “at least some”.  Unfortunately, “at least some” can mean they use it for most courses, or they just used it once.  Also, it doesn’t specify which parts of CMS they use.  26% never use it and 2% don’t know what it is.

I’ve used both WebCT and Sakai for classes I’ve taught at the University of Delaware.  In my experience, they improve education a little, but not a lot.

Before I was using course management systems, I would make sure to update my course webpage for every assignment and lecture.  I’ll describe the benefits of CMS in contrast to a webpage, but note that some faculty might not even use a course webpage, so they might see more (or fewer) benefits.


  • assignments and grading
    • students can get grades back sooner
      In practice, most students don’t check the grades until they learn (in class) that the grades are posted.
    • feedback is typed out, which can be a huge benefit if the TA/grader has poor handwriting
    • somewhat better handling of deadlines
    • easier to share grade sheet between instructor, TA, and student
    • easier to spot/fix missing grades
    • easier for instructor to change grades and comments from TA
    • saves paper!
      If submissions are electronic, it can save paper.  If they would’ve been sent over email anyway, it doesn’t save paper, but helps keep the files organized.
  • if all classes use the CMS, the students only need to remember one URL instead of a separate URL for each class
    This can be a major benefit – students probably won’t check a webpage, but are much more likely to check a central system.
  • materials can be private for the class
    If you tend to reuse assignments, this may be a benefit.
  • integration with email announcements (Sakai was very nice for this)
    The major benefit for me is that I forget the format of the class list email address.


  • (Sakai) very poor handling of mistakes in submission
    For example, “oops I forgot to attach the second file”.  If you don’t allow resubmission, it has to be done manually via email.  If you allow resubmission, now the assignment is marked as late.
  • (Sakai) buggy handling of file attachments on assignments
    The file upload box only worked for me once or twice.  Then it would just hang there and keep uploading.  So I ended up putting them on my webpage and linking it.  Kinda ironic.
  • (Sakai) buggy display of grades
    After a number of grades were entered, the rows didn’t line up horizontally in the grade sheet view.
  • sketchy handling of courses with a shared lecture section and split lab sections
  • commenting on assignments loses the context
    If you’re grading a paper assignment, you can circle something or draw arrows, which can save the grader effort but can also make explanations more clear.
  • online submission isn’t easy or appropriate for certain assignments
    Graphical submissions take considerably more effort from the student (plotting points for machine learning, learning curves for ML, graphs/networks for searching, min/max searching).  Equations can be done with latex but most people don’t know how to use it.
  • if you’re the only person at your school/department using CMS, there’s almost no benefit over webpage/email/etc.  It’ll probably take more time to explain the system to students.

My personal experience is that WebCT and Sakai tend to be useful most of the time, but other times the implementations are just sloppy and it causes headaches.  Also, I’m sure there are plenty of schools that don’t have it setup, and someone that isn’t tech-savvy isn’t going to be able to manage it themselves.

Back to the original study, 26% knowing about CMS but not using it seems reasonable.

plagiarism detection tools

First off, how many classes does this even apply to?  As far as I know, there are tools to detect plagiarism for English writing and there are tools to detect plagiarism for programming.

I’ve used software for code plagiarism before, which spots things like changing format, variable/function names, and comments.  It’s a mixed bag though.  Typically cheating is more common in introductory classes, which can have basic assignments like “Draw a 3-4-5 triangle in text with stars.”  There are only so many ways to code that, so the solutions can have natural similarities that tools mistakenly identify.

In more advanced assignments, plagiarism tends to be much easier to identify because the range of submissions is much wider.

At first I was surprised that 70% of people never use it, but it’s only applicable for certain kinds of courses and certain kinds of assignments.  Beyond that, there are plenty of cases of plagiarism that you’d catch without the software anyway, so I can understand if people don’t want to learn new software.

collaborative editing software

How is this even used in a course?  The only case I’ve heard of is one class project that ended in contributing to Wikipedia.

If instead it means group reports that are co-authored using Google Documents, that’s up to the students, not the professor.  Maybe the professor could mention it in class, but that’s about it.


What would you want this for?  It’s unclear how this can improve education at all.  If it’s for announcements,  the mailing list or CMS is enough.  If it’s for additional information, you should probably bring it up in class time.

The only good use I can think of in my classes is assignment announcements, but those are partly handled through CMS anyway.

student response systems

I’ve heard good things about clickers in large lecture environments.  But I’ve only taught smaller (20 or less) classes, and in that size class I can judge comprehension from facial expressions.  If I’m not sure, I ask the students.

videoconferencing or internet phone chat

How is this related to the classroom?  If you’re away at a conference, would you really try to hold class over the Internet?  I’ve heard of it being done but it’s not very effective.

Would this be used for office hours? What happens when you need to draw something?  What happens when you have students trying to make Skype calls to you all day long?

video games, simulations, virtual worlds

There are some (rare) cases where I could see this being useful.  For instance, the ALU that was designed in Minecraft.  I’m sure classes about artwork for games could make use of it, but they might be better off looking at stills anyway.  I’ve heard of a medical simulation using the Phantom device, but it’s pretty expensive and I think it was only useful for one lecture.


I have to agree with Gene from FXPAL Blog – technology isn’t always helpful.  If it helps, that’s great.  If not, spend your time on something useful.  He mentions some other interesting effects – knowing that the technology exists doesn’t mean you know how to use it.  Some people just aren’t good with tech.  For things like clickers, it could also be a financial problem.

Furthermore, the study could’ve been improved vastly.  More common questions could’ve been studied:

  • What percentage of homeworks/labs are submitted via CMS?  Via email?  Via paper?  Other?
    • This should be separately measured for assignments that are easily typed compared to assignments that are difficult to type (plots, equations, drawings)
  • What types of courses use cheating detection software?  What types don’t?
  • What percent of classes use powerpoint/equivalent?  Transparencies?  Chalkboard/whiteboard?  Something else?
    • You’d need to be careful to figure out how often they use each, rather than just a yes/no.
  • What percent of classes have some form of lecture notes available online?
    • Of the courses that do, how many include complete lecture info vs partial info (outline, etc)?
  • How often do you interact with students about classwork outside of class?
    • How much per week for email?  Publicly scheduled office hours?  Privately scheduled meetings?  Unscheduled meetings?  Other things like phone, sms, instant messaging?

It would be nice to see differences by field.  I’m sure music education is vastly different than computer science.

Beyond descriptive statistics, it would be nice to correlate with some measure of teaching effectiveness (though evaluating teaching effectiveness is incredibly difficult).

from The Chronicle from Mind Dump from FXPAL Blog


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