Educational technology can be frustrating and tricky. I was complaining a couple of weeks ago about weirdly placed projectors and white boards with no markers and projectors that don’t work no matter how hard you try. Our learning management system is full of gargoyles and error messages and snake pits I keep stepping in.
But there are two educational technologies that have never let me down; two educational technologies that have brought nothing but sunshine, student engagement, hilarity, good work, and authentic learning to my classroom; two technologies that make my life easier at the same time as they push students forward. Cheap, robust, accessible, always working–no down time, no tech support, no upgrades.
Those two technologies? My iPhone timer, and the random number generator feature on Google.
Let me explain.
iPhone Timer: A lot of my courses are writing focused. All of my courses ask students to participate in class discussion. All of my courses feature group work and in-class collaboration. With my iPhone timer, I structure timed writing sessions, with every class, every meeting. In a writing class, it’s really hard to teach by lecturing: students should learn how to write by writing. So we write. I often open class like this: “Take two minutes, and write absolutely as much as you can about possible research directions for your paper–what you need to learn, what you already know, keywords for library searches, names of authors you know on this topic, names of websites likely to have information, everything. I’ll set my timer for two minutes, and I’m watching to make sure your pens don’t stop moving, or your fingers don’t stop typing … GO!” Maybe later in my grad seminar, I’ll say, “We just finished a unit on social justice selfies. I’m going to set the timer for five minutes and I want you to brainstorm all the ideas we’ve been exposed to. Then we’ll do another five minutes where you can use that material as a prompt to write a paragraph summarizing the unit.”
I use the timer every day, in every class. Students expect to have to write, and they quickly get used to it. Timed writing is purposeful–I will always say before we start what we’re going to do with the writing after: think / pair / share; or, class discussion; or, personal process writing for an upcoming assignment. Timed writing is great to move students forward on a project. Timed writing is great for making sure that everyone has something to contribute to class discussion–I tell the shy students that if they are called on, they can just read verbatim what they’ve written down, and they like that a lot. Timed writing is great for modelling what I teach: we are maybe learning to write (my undergrad course is called ‘Intro to Academic Writing’ but strong students are also always writing to learn.
The timer is great because it seems objective and science-y to everyone. No one fights the timer. Everyone works. The best? When the timer goes off and everyone is shoots their eyes up in shock: already?
Random Number Generator: I just started using this last year, in a first year digital culture / writing focused class taken by reluctant Math majors. I would do timed writing before a class discussion, and so I knew everyone had at least the stub of something to contribute, and then I would ask the question, and no. one. would. raise. their. hand. Crickets chirped. A whole lot of nothing-burger. No one. I would cajole, and I would eventually point at someone and make them talk. Yuck.
What I do now is have students number off before the timed writing. And then I say, “We will discuss this question as a group, and the random number generator is going to decide who talks!”
This is a great system, remarkably effective, and fair, and fun. It’s like video slots, only no one wants to win. Instead of trying to guess the odds that I will point at them and make them talk, the human element is taken completely out of it. The random number generator cares not if you are making eye contact, or if you are studiously scribbling. It just picks a number. Students also stop blaming me for putting them on the spot. It’s not a test of wills between me and them. They know this is a teaching strategy I use to make sure that everyone uses their timed writing wisely, and saves them from having to take the risk of volunteering to talk, or the potential dread of being called on by me. I use it nearly every day in my undergrad classes, and it has really improved discussion, attitudes, and students’ effort levels. And we laugh a lot, too.
I use the RNG for group work, too. I used to have groups work on things independently and then sequentially report back to the class. That took forever. Now I have all the groups working in shared public Google docs, so everyone can read what they’ve produced whenever they want, and the RNG picks two groups and they report. Everyone works really hard, because they’re producing class notes, and no one knows when they’re going to have to present to the class, so everyone has to prepare for that.
It is a truism that students put effort where grades are involved. I understand that their time and attention is diverted and fragmented and limited and scarce. I want to make sure that if they’re going to come to class, it’s going to be worth their time–they’re going to get something measurable and meaningful done. The iPhone Timer and the RNG add a tiny bit of accountability and stakes to in-class work–it’s not like grades are involved, but there’s a non-trivial chance that any given student or group is going to have to say something out loud, or present an idea, or fill in a shared worksheet. The iPhone Timer and the RNG make the time/attention calculus easy: it’s just easier to participate fully than it is to try to game it. And the result is a win for all of us: they do better work, they learn more, I talk / lecture a lot less, we build shared resources, we laugh at the idiosyncrasies and unintended hilarities of the RNG.
Do you have a favourite or unexpected ed-tech? I’m always looking for more classroom hacks.