Free and Easy: A Rubric for Evaluating Everyday Technology

Gerben, Chris

Before a recent school year, one of my oldest friends—who now teaches special education courses at a middle school outside of Detroit—shared his excitement of being granted a SMART Board interactive whiteboard in his classroom. The SMART board allows users to write in “digital ink,” mark-up electronic texts (such as Word documents and websites), and save the results for future reference or sharing. The company who produces the boards boasts claims of students’ increased engagement and motivation as a result of using the product ("SMART Technologies"), which undoubtedly translates into why educators like my friend and his school district were so enthusiastic to incorporate them into their classrooms.

Though my friend had every reason to be excited (he’s an excellent teacher in one of the most underappreciated divisions of education) his news was barely off his lips before I began my protestation against SMART Boards. I provided every counter-argument I could imagine: SMART Boards cost more money than most school districts are willing to spend. They can be a teacher-driven technology, often too protected to be widely used by students in a consistently democratic fashion. They, like most new technology, may cause immediate excitement, but once the novelty wears off they’re likely to be used as glorified dry erase boards. As I continued, though, I realized the futility of my arguments; I realized, in fact, that I didn’t have any legitimate reason to offer why this technology couldn’t be used smartly and effectively in the classroom. Of course, there has been considerable research and discussion into the value (or not) of these boards (such as Stephanie McCrummen’s piece in a 2010 Washington Post article), but my kneejerk reaction came from one small detail my fellow teacher mentioned that is likely repeated dozens—if not hundreds—of times in writing classrooms across the country each year: through no fault of his own, he had no idea how he was going to use the technology to enhance his classroom. This small detail, it turns out, is not so small.

Evaluating Our Technology

A few years ago I was similarly preparing to teach a writing and rhetoric course at a major university. Like other universities I had taught at, I spent the previous year teaching in rooms the size of closets, with (at most) a digital projector attached to the ceiling. This quarter was to be different, however, as I was given the keys to a technologically-loaded classroom, complete with dual interactive Samsung touch screens, half a dozen flat panel “collaboration stations,” and a cart filled with two dozen laptops that could be connected to one another and to the classroom’s boards via the school’s strong WiFi network. This was educational technology for educational purposes: like my friend years later, I couldn’t have been more excited.

The problem, though, like him, was that I had never given much thought to what I would do with the technology once I was in the room. My previous classroom technology uses had traditionally served the primary purpose of content delivery. I projected PowerPoint slides, websites, and (on rare occasions) student text that we would mark-up in real time, but I had never used technology specifically to foster collaborative group work or to produce academic texts during class. Unlike the proper training or faculty development discussed in Laura McGrath and Letizia Guglielmo’s article (in this issue), however, my training consisted of a quick walk-through of the myriad possibilities in which I could use the room. Overwhelmed, and with little time left before the quarter started, I panicked and made the safe decision to use technology only as embellishment, as the category of novelty item that I later accused SMART Boards of belonging to. The course remained largely a pen and paper class, with the exception of a few group assignments where I had students show brainstorming notes to each other via the flat panels (an activity, I’ll admit, could have just as easily been replicated using chalkboards.) The problem, of course, was not the technology: it was the user.

As a technology user and teacher, I learned two important lessons from this experience that I tried in vain to articulate to my friend several years later. The first is that even schools’ best intentions of providing technology and classroom space to eager, otherwise competent teachers can be squandered without the proper preparation and training. According to my former colleague at the University of Michigan’s School of Education, Barry Fishman, who instructs graduate students in an education technology course: “Technology needs pedagogy more than pedagogy needs technology,” which succinctly describes this lesson. Without time and foresight, no technology can replace quality instruction. The second lesson, though, is more subtle, and is the focus of this piece. The entire time I was ignorantly playing with my classroom technology, or ignoring it altogether, my students were behind their laptops, emailing one another, catching up on Facebook, or otherwise keeping themselves busy with their personal, extracurricular technologies. They didn’t need a SMART Board to be engaged and motivated; they simply needed a teacher who could tap into their desire to interact with one another via popular, everyday technology. In other words, the real issue, both in Detroit and any other college campus, is not what (or if) technology is used, it’s how it’s used, which starts with having specific goals being in place before implementing or embracing anything; it starts with evaluating what technology can do to make us better instructors.

Free & Easy Technology

Multimodal technologies can be used for nearly everything we do as writing researchers and instructors. Personally, I study how social media like Facebook affects academic writing (Gerben “Putting 2.0 and Two”), I upload conference presentations to YouTube (Gerben “Design By Default”), I rely on Twitter to help maintain continuity and community with students outside of class, and I comment on student papers using annotation software like VoiceThread or Jing. Despite the initial view of these tools as diversified, though, they all share a common thread that I highlight to the graduate students and instructors I mentor in our writing program: each technology is free to use, is intuitive, and is easy to learn quickly. Likewise, they are technologies that many of our students already use and are familiar with outside of class. They are everyday technologies, not necessarily designed for educational purposes, but easily appropriated for our academic goals. In many ways they are a common language that many of us share both within and beyond our intellectual communities on campus.

Free and easy everyday technologies can be utilized to enhance, not overwhelm, effective teaching. They can save time and money. Because of their ubiquity, arguing for their place in composition curricula is made potentially easier. Perhaps most importantly, they are a bridge between what expectations instructors have for their students and the literacy skills that students bring to their courses. The best technologies for instruction, therefore, should be accessible and intuitive, both in their functionality and how they relate to course goals in writing instruction. Many educational technologies have been designed (and researched) for these exact purposes. However, appropriating everyday technology for academic purposes may not only provide a more accessible route to contemporary writing instruction, it may also serve as a catalyst for innovation and creativity as students and instructors reflect on everyday objects from new perspectives.

These observations are confirmed by one of the leading voices in education innovation. Edutopia, an education think-tank and collection of resources formed by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, routinely publishes digital reports, blog posts, and updates to their website that advocate for everyday technology use in the classroom. In a popular (and still freely available) back-to-school guide, titled Jump-Start Learning with New Media, Edutopia authors highlight no less than 40 free websites, apps, and resources for educators looking to incorporate technology into their pedagogy. The group likewise arranges their list of resources by use, or what they call “tips,” for targeted classroom practice. These goals range from “breaking the digital ice” to “use the buddy system,” the latter providing avenues for instructors to continue the conversation by joining collaborative communities discussing similar issues and tools. Avoiding prescription, the guide smartly makes no differentiation between K-12 and higher education instruction or between discipline and skill level. Instead, it presents everyday resources and models that nearly any instructor or student can take up to pursue their chosen field of study.

Like Edutopia’s guide, in this article, I eschew a simple list of technology tools and practices divorced from curricular goals (or likewise debating the merits of big budget items like SMART Boards or plagiarism detection software). Instead, I argue for the use of technology based on what Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe call “backward design,” or the argument that instructors should guide their teaching methods by the goals they hope to achieve at the end of a course. According to the authors, while most instructors naturally begin by considering the means (i.e. textbooks, activities, technology) when designing their pedagogy, it may be more beneficial to start by considering the desired end results, and “then identifying the evidence necessary to determine that the results have been achieved (assessments)” (338). From there, the authors argue that instructors can then identify the skills needed for students to complete the tasks and the means required to “equip [the] students to perform” (338). In other words: start from the end and work back.

In considering backward design and technology in a composition course, it is natural to first consider the production and consumption binary present in many courses (including my earlier courses that relied primarily on content delivery). However, since most everyday “Web 2.0” technologies promote production over consumption, (think about all of the open text boxes) basing a design on such a false binary may not be fruitful. What is helpful, though, is constructing a universal heuristic for technology use that ranges its focus from instructor issues to student products. Though such a continuum is itself a false spectrum, it serves as a starting point for evaluating when—and more importantly, how—to utilize everyday technology in the writing classroom. As a result, this article offers six areas of the writing classroom that lend themselves to effective technology-based instruction and that allow technology to follow pedagogy, instead of the other way around. These areas, ranging approximately from focus on instructor to student, include:

  1. Content Storage
  2. Content Delivery
  3. Feedback and Assessment
  4. Peer Collaboration
  5. Research
  6. Content Production
The goal in presenting such a list is not to box any particular approach or technology into an arbitrary category. Instead, by aligning a writing course’s goals with these categories, instructors may be better equipped to determine what—if any—multimodal tools will help them achieve their instructional goals.

Within each section below, I offer an explanation of what are some of the most common goals associated with composition instruction and suggest several types of everyday technologies that can be used freely and easily in the classroom alongside examples of successful implementation. Since technologies we discuss today may be obsolete, or gone, by tomorrow, I emphasize types of websites and apps that model a strong connection between writing and online interaction. Any technology may be co-opted and adapted for different usage, but the rubric shared in this article attempts to guide instructors through essential areas of the classroom that remain equally important with or without technology both today and tomorrow.

Six Activities of the Writing Classroom

According to the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project, websites most popular with students today involve social media and include social networks, wikis, and blogs (Lenhart, et al.). Social media, such as these, fall under the umbrella of Web 2.0, a category of sites coined by Tim O’Reilly in 2005 to describe media that rely on the user to create data and drive interaction. The argument, according to O’Reilly, explains that sites like or aren’t necessarily popular for the products they sell as much as the user reviews and interaction supported by the sites. As a result, even consumers who know what they want on a site like Amazon are greeted with a “Users who bought this item also bought” screen above pages and pages of reviews and comments. The same goes for non-commercial sites like Twitter or online newspapers like the New York Times, both of which allow users to respond directly to other users or add comments beneath new information. These sites support active production of text even when users are seeking out literal, financial consumption.

Web 2.0 sites are not only seen as useful, they also fit into what Henry Jenkins calls “participatory culture,” or the ethos of sharing and interaction that many users have come to expect from most sites. The result, especially when used in classrooms, is that students have an expectation of active interaction, not only with one another and the website, but also with the instructor. This interaction primarily takes the form of online writing: nearly no popular website can be interacted with without the input of alphanumeric text (to say nothing of the literacy acts of uploading videos, creating podcasts, or sharing hyperlinks). The result is that any teacher considering introducing everyday technology into her classroom should first determine to what degree she wants to embrace an electronic, democratic space. The benefits of doing so include supporting teachable moments on ethics, digital literacy, and intellectual property. The cautions—blown, in some cases, wildly out of proportion in news reports of teachers inhabiting Web 2.0 sites alongside their students—include blurred boundaries of privacy and relationship roles between students and instructors. These cautions are revisited in the conclusion.

Fortunately, there have been dozens of excellent publications considering this composition-based entrée into the technological classroom (e.g. Hansen & Frederick; Beason; Myers-Breslin; Webb) ranging from Larry Cuban’s historical look at educational technology in 1986 to J. Elizabeth Clark’s 2010 argument for a 21st-century pedagogy that largely relies on some of the free Web 2.0 sites I describe here. Regardless of the instructor’s ultimate decision on whether or not to incorporate technology into her pedagogy, this article’s rubric offers the following six areas of a writing classroom as individual moments for reflection on where we can connect our academic pursuits with our students’ extracurricular desires to write and interact (Yancey). The result is a more dynamic and relevant writing pedagogy informed by students’ skills as much as it is by instructors’ goals.

1. Content Storage

Content storage of readings, papers, and miscellaneous handouts is universal to most writing classrooms. It represents the evolving intellectual community present in any given course. To properly turn a storage space into an intellectual community, however, participants need a central place to store, exchange, and discuss their work. Such spaces can actively facilitate community involvement not only between participants, but also across time and space. Contemporary instructors have no doubt heard of “cloud computing,” which describes data (Word documents, PDFs, apps, etc.) that is housed not on individual computers, but in distant databases, accessible anywhere and everywhere via a connection to the Internet. Such an arrangement is not only convenient, but it also increases access and equity to shared content as long as the participants have Internet access. Though access issues continue to be a legitimate concern for our students, young scholars are increasingly exposed to ubiquitous WiFi signals and devices such as portable laptops or handheld devices like smartphones and tablets such as Apple’s iPad that make accessing shared content not only easy, but expected.

As a result, writing courses are increasingly paperless, with both the course readings and student assignments composed and commented on digitally. Instructors at Michigan are able to store and exchange files with students using course management software (CMS) that hosts tools supporting storage and interaction, such as the Sakai Project’s CTools (at Michigan) or Coursework (at Stanford). Other institutions may use and be familiar with Blackboard, a commercial CMS, or LectureTools, a U-M inspired lecturing service that has introduced a low-fee (or free) system for instructors and students. Instructors, either for financial or institutional reasons, may turn to a growing number of free and customizable CMS suites available online as alternatives to these large systems.

Some of the more popular free CMS sites include Harvard’s Open Scholar project, Howard Rheingold’s (the same man who coined the term “virtual community” in 1993) Social Media Classroom, Lore, and Nixty. Nixty, in particular, is a strong CMS that allows instructors to create fully personalized online courses to host readings and student papers and facilitate interaction among class members and students at other institutions using wiki and social networking tools. Before Nixty, many educators favored a site called Ning, which provided tools to create small, individualized social networks around topics like courses or hobbies. However, in 2010 Ning moved from a free model to a pay website, so that users not willing to subscribe and pay fees were often left without access to their data or communities. The Ning move should serve as a caution that the allure of cloud computing can quickly sour if instructors aren’t careful about backing up their files and having a Plan B in place should access to digital files be difficult or financially unreasonable.

One way to create such a plan is to back up files and webpages using services such as Dropbox, Diigo, or LiveBinders. Dropbox allows users to store files across multiple computers and online. Best of all, if users were to update a file (e.g., change a few words of an essay), the file would automatically update itself on Dropbox’s servers. Likewise, sites like Diigo and LiveBinders allow people to collect websites or Internet files that they’ve come across and would like to keep. Many instructors may find these tools useful in building e-portfolios for students, or collecting information for future projects via bookmarks, like those provided by Delicious, which functions just like the bookmarks found on a computer’s browser but is accessible anywhere.

The thread running throughout all of these examples is the need for accessible organization within a classroom community. Especially when teaching a course where students share readings and papers, having a central meeting space that is intuitively organized and universally accessible is essential. Though not all teachers may be inclined to create their own class website or subscribe to sometimes pricy CMS suites, there are many alternatives that can be as simple as virtual file cabinets or as complex as international online communities. Regardless of the path instructors ultimately take, securing an online repository for course materials is increasingly essential not only for everyday function of the class, but also in saving such materials for future courses or for potential hiring and promotion needs. Both instructors and students should get in the habit of saving everything they do in their courses across multiple platforms.

2. Content Delivery

Whether instructors are lecturing a large class, presenting in front of a small group, or simply demonstrating an idea to peers, our knowledge is transferred when we deliver it using media that supplements our ideas with visuals. Though classic blackboards, markers and paper, and SMART Boards can all provide this service, no modern technology is perhaps as ubiquitous as Microsoft’s PowerPoint (or Apple’s similar Keynote.) The presentation software is standard fare for most classes and committees. But while its use is common and its platform is easy to use and understand, PowerPoint’s ubiquity lends itself to misuse, as highlighted in advice such as the University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching’s “Tips for Using Common Technology Tools in Learning.” Among CRLT’s tips, the uses of too many words or coloring patterns are sure to dilute a presentation’s message, and so are to be avoided. However, a larger concern for using tools like PowerPoint should be that its linear and static delivery style has become overly expected, if not tired and cliché, meaning that not all audience members will successfully receive the information.

Alternatives to PowerPoint have begun gaining popularity online. While the widely used platforms authorSTREAM and SlideShare offer users a way to share their homemade slideshows with others (and access previous slides via any connection), programs like Prezi offer presenters new ways of visualizing their information. Prezi provides a virtual blank canvas, allowing users to link ideas visually as well as effectively operate a camera to zoom in or out of large ideas. This non-linear way of presenting data can be incredibly engaging; instead of a steady stream of rectangular slides one after another, Prezi operates more like a map, with the presenter connecting points by moving from one idea to the next with the click of a mouse. Interestingly, even Prezi is increasingly becoming expected at meetings and conferences, so instructors should be prepared to discuss the rhetorical choices their students will be asked to make when deciding the vehicle by which their content is eventually presented.

Such decisions of visual interaction fit nicely into Madeleine Sorapure’s excellent 2010 article on visualizing information in the writing classroom. Among her insights, Sorapure describes the use of word clouds, such as Wordle or TagCrowd, to visualize the number of occurrences of a word in any text. For example, analysis of this article using a Wordle word cloud seen in the image here reveals that I used the words “students” and “technology” more than any others.

Wordle word cloud of this article

Such an analysis could be used as a diagnostic for student papers or linguistic approach to writing assignments. I would add to Sorapure’s argument the need for more hands-on visualization practices in our classrooms, not just in analysis, but in creation. In one previous class, I asked students to create comics in which they put themselves into direct conversation with published authors we were reading in class. To do so, students used sites such as Make Beliefs Comix! and DoInk to create narratives and present them to others. In my course, I was shocked by how students who had trouble quoting authors had fun staging mock conversations with them within the safe context of a comic. As a result, content delivery can, and should, be looked at as visual conversations that may provide new perspectives for audiences who are typically not receptive to bulleted lists of information.

3. Feedback & Assessment

Providing students with feedback and assessment is part of the social construction of knowledge that takes place through everyday activities such as peer workshops, revision, and formative comments in all writing courses. Traditionally, composition instructors have used hard copies, Microsoft Word commenting features, or some of the CMS suites mentioned above to achieve these goals. However, several years ago I tried an experiment where instead of utilizing a CMS for a first-year writing course, I tried to house all of our discussions on Facebook. Each week I’d start a discussion about our course readings in the Discussion tab of our Facebook Group (all of the students already had public profiles, which in hindsight was a small gift of convenience). However, the Group’s Wall—the homepage for the course where I invited anyone to post anything they liked, regardless of whether it was class-related or not—quickly grew fallow. I had effectively created a “creepy treehouse,” a potentially fun space that students saw as luring them in to do work in a place occupied by their instructor. This stillness in an otherwise social space is often a product of students not just being “creeped out,” but engaging in what Nike Arnold and Trena Paulus call “lurking,” or “reading but not responding to posted information or discussions among other students” (7). In other words, my experiment created the antithesis to productive feedback.

This anecdote serves as a lesson that feedback is important, and comes in a variety of forms. Students can give feedback to one another through face-to-face discussion. Students can give feedback to teachers in or out of classes. And teachers can give students feedback in the form of assessments. My attempt to bring a social network into the classroom didn’t exactly fail (students actively discussed the course readings, in some cases talking much more than they did in person and in class); however, it didn’t facilitate the forming of a cohesive community that results from active peer-to-peer interaction and feedback. It likewise did not advance my instructional goals of providing quick and clear feedback; it instead forced students to scroll through pages of irrelevant content to discover comments that may have best been delivered in private.

Feedback in the writing classroom, however, need not be simply text-based and between instructor and student. On many campuses, audience response systems—like the popular Qwizdom clickers—are becoming increasingly popular in both motivating and engaging students as well as in providing a kind of feedback loop. The clickers often function like buzzers on a game show, where an instructor can pose a question, students provide answers, and the list of responses can either be used directly in class or saved and analyzed later. One problem with such systems is that they cost time and money, for teacher and student alike. However, like laptops, cell phones are becoming increasingly popular in classrooms. Before arguments against their perceived intrusion can be measured, it could be argued that we need to consider what we can do as instructors to utilize this mostly free piece of technology that students already own.

Poll Everywhere is one good example. It is a (mostly) free service that allows students to use their phones to respond to prompts. In one small example, I could ask a group of students what topic they’d like to talk about that day in class. Using their phones to text a response, the site updates their responses in real-time, facilitating further discussion and providing a democratic response. If students don’t have phones or text messaging plans, they can just as easily enter their response freely on a computer, as they can on the similar service Socrative. Likewise, Wiffiti allows students to post short text messages to a class wall, displayed on a website in real time. The text messages act as virtual graffiti, allowing students to voice their opinions, and opening the classroom into a community based on feedback. Outside of the classroom, and before the start of each semester, I send out a survey to my new students on SurveyMonkey. Their early feedback allows me to cater the course to their interests as well as open the door to communication once I share the results in the first days of class. All of these services provide a kind of “crowd sourcing,” where the voices of many (students) can be aggregated and displayed in a singular text. This text may be used for assessment purposes (such as determining which students missed a particular question) or for brainstorming, discussion, or planning purposes.

Of course, assessment for writing instructors is often an activity that is best done one-on-one, as opposed to as part of a crowd. While many writing instructors utilize Word’s “Track Changes” feature to give electronic feedback, there are other alternatives that allow teachers to give feedback in media outside of the traditional Word document. Carl Whithaus and several co-authors advise using blogs as one way to assess writing that takes place over the course of a semester. A.nnotate also allows users to leave comments, or in some cases virtual Post-Its, on websites and digital media. Instructors can use it effectively to comment on students’ digital projects. The same can be said of screen-capture software, where many instructors have begun creating short videos on services like Jing in order to walk students—both orally and visually—through their comments. In the screenshot seen here, I have provided feedback on a written assignment for a student by first highlighting areas of a document, and then recording a five minute video where I scroll through the document and “talk” to the student about my thinking behind the highlights. The video is then sent to the student via a private webpage, and can be saved, rewatched, and rewound. It likewise mimics the kind of face-to-face interaction that my student and I might have if we were to meet and discuss this work in person.

Screenshot of Jing student feedback video

In cases like these, assessment can be presented as less punitive and more formative, essentially inviting students to behave as active audiences who are welcome to comment back on the instructor’s remarks on their own terms, thus supporting an intellectual community through supportive conversation.

4. Peer Collaboration

Peer collaboration can be seen as essential and separate from feedback discussed in the previous section, in that even in the best courses, students often have to do their (group) work outside of class time. As a result, they are increasingly asked to make use of online tools to meet and work virtually with one another. One of the most common free tools for collaborative work may be Google’s suite of products including Google Drive and Google Calendar. These tools offer the aforementioned benefits of cloud computing in addition to the ability to write and collaborate in real time, so that two authors, miles apart, can work on the same document, see each other’s changes, and track the evolving versions of the work over time.

Wikis, such as the tremendously popular but often maligned online encyclopedia Wikipedia, also provide an interactive, collaborative way of collecting people’s comments and archiving the evolving texts in intuitive ways. They may also provide an ongoing site of critical reflection and recursive planning. Many CMS suites, including those discussed earlier, have wiki tools built in. However, instructors can also easily create their own wikis using sites like PBWorks or Wikispaces. Wikis provide excellent spaces for courses to compile information on a rolling basis, allowing participants to add or edit information as they learn more, knowing throughout that they can always go back to an earlier version should they not like their most recent entry. In my own research, I have created and maintained private wikis where I can continually add resources (e.g., articles and books to return to) that can evolve with my projects. Needless to say, such compilations have spared me the task of keeping track of so many legal pads and notebooks, but more appropriate to this section, they’ve allowed me to share my ongoing intellectual journeys with others, in some cases inviting them to add relevant material as they see fit. This kind of loose collaboration is often more democratic and egalitarian than some of the “forced” collaborative group projects that may be typically assigned in a writing course.

In any case, everyday technology allows students to bridge their academic work with their extracurricular activities, and allows for both virtual and traditional, face-to-face interaction. Online scheduling sites like Doodle make finding a common time to meet in person much easier, especially when multiple people with varied schedules are involved. Likewise, many instant messenger clients, Google+’s Hangout, Apple’s FaceTime, or the popular video calling service Skype allow users to literally see each other eye-to-eye when projects require more personal interaction or prolonged negotiation. Given that many new laptops and smartphones include video cameras in them, instructors need not necessarily feel guilty for assigning group work for people with disparate lives outside of the classroom.

5. Research

Even in courses where no outside academic research is required, adding outside perspectives to discussion can enrich and sustain any discourse community. For this reason, research is an essential aspect of any classroom, especially one that asks students to write informed and engaging arguments. To do so, students often need not leave their laptops by making use of Google Scholar or RefSeek to perform familiar searches that respond only with academic, often vetted, results. In this way, students can feel at ease with their ability to search for sources using common online practices without needing to set foot in a library. Even if students don’t ultimately download the sources they find, their exposure to the sources’ existence at least has the potential to broaden their perspectives.

Should students wish to follow up on their sources, though, the online bibliographic software Zotero allows users to save the bibliographic information of any source (or download the associated PDF or video) with the click of a button. In a course I helped teach on videogames and education, we used Zotero in conjunction with BiblioBouts, an online game where students score points by finding more sources than their classmates. The game’s success had less to do with who was better at doing research than with an open embracing of finding new and varied sources. The result was a richer intellectual community in the guise of a highly interactive game.

In addition to finding sources, class content can also be supplemented by a host of educational videos, lectures, and educational content provided in audio or video format. YouTube EDU is an education-only sister site to the popular video provider. Within Apple’s music application iTunes, users can access iTunesU, a gateway to a professor’s and an institution’s actual courses provided at the world’s top schools. iTunesU’s approach is similar to that of MIT’s OpenCourseWare (OCW), which seeks to upload all of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s courses to a central, searchable site. MIT’s OCW, and others like it, allow users with any background, and from any computer, access to lectures and exams from some of the world’s top scholars. Whether used as models or evidence in a research-based classroom, videos and materials like these place students in the company of a near infinite community of scholars. And though Massive Open Online Courses (or, MOOCs) on sites like Coursera or Udacity are still in their infancy, the hundreds of thousands of students signing up for them may portend their eventual inclusion alongside more traditional curricula.

6. Content Production

Perhaps the most overlooked area for technology use in the classroom is the idea of content production: the idea that students should be expected to not just access digital media, but make them. Unlike the previous category of content delivery, production should entail a hands-on approach to technology and media, allowing students to create podcasts, videos, and websites that may engage them and find lives of their own outside of the classroom. Students may approach the Internet—even in the era of Web 2.0—primarily as consumers: finding sources, clicking through websites, or browsing friends’ profiles. Then, when they’re asked to create content (usually in the form of a typed essay) their prior experiences with technology are overlooked or seen as separate. To create an innovative culture of media production, instructors and students need no other skills than the ones they use when using a cell phone or typing an email.

Many courses ask students to conduct field research, usually taking the form of surveys, interviews, or observations. Producing websites, videos, or podcasts can be seen as a kind of primary research and production, too, even if those products are only used in support of a final production. However, if instructors are interested in multi-media final projects, they may ask students to create videos or podcasts for public viewing. Students may certainly use camcorders or digital recorders to create videos and upload them to YouTube, iTunes, or Vimeo, but even PowerPoint has an overlooked tool called “Record Narration,” which allows students to create living, stand-alone presentations that may be uploaded and shared as podcasts. Since cell phones are in most pockets and laptops often include built-in microphones, these technologies require next to no additional learning curve, and certainly don’t require any additional investment.

Teachers, likewise, sometimes have students create blogs in order to write to “real, live” audiences on the Internet. Chances are that students may not garner many readers or receive much unexpected feedback through these semester-long blogs, even when they’re made on slick providers like Blogger, WordPress, or the great visual site Tumblr. However, these ventures on the Web are valuable in that they show students who already blog that we value their extracurricular activities; these sites also allow classes to collect their resources and comments in a document that has the potential to live on beyond the last day of class. Two examples are presented here. In the first, Stanford instructor Dr. Christine Alfano’s students in her rhetoric of gaming course may use this Wordpress blog as a continuing resource and community.

Screenshot of Dr. Christine Alfano’s rhetoric of gaming Wordpress blog

Likewise, classes can utilize Google Sites to make a kind of online museum of the final projects produced in any given course. Both examples illustrate how student-produced content can be celebrated and used as a resource long after the final class session.

Though website and app creation used to be the final frontier for many interested in technology and teaching, (often requiring programming skills, design aesthetic, and hosting duties) these barriers are rapidly eroding. There are many website creation sites that allow users to follow templates or create from scratch websites that are indiscernible from professional ones populating other parts of the Internet. Wix is one such site that allows for images and moving parts, while Yola and Weebly provide intuitive tools for standard website creation, whether it’s for a personal portfolio or a class presentation. Google also offers its Sites page for quick and easy websites, as does Wordpress, which takes a standard blogging template and allows users to create beautiful websites in a matter of minutes. Increasingly, students are likewise being given publishing tools such as Apple’s iBooks Author, which allows any writer to publish her text to the iBooks store or Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing platform, which allows writers to sell their work on the commercial website. App creation tools are close behind. As composition instructors, therefore, it should be our duty to explore multiple media for both consumption and for production, as well as for expression and argumentation.

Caveats & Conclusion

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when provided a list of sites like those provided here. Especially as budgets are cut and technologies are seen as intrusions into the classroom, it’s understandable why the contemporary teacher would resist experimenting too much, especially with silly sounding sites with which one doesn’t have any experience. Likewise, instructors may actually actively resist taking on new technologies if they are not presented satisfactorily. However, in attempting to match common types of technology to the essential activities of any classroom, I have tried to present a type of logic behind creating rubrics to evaluate technology (and their need) in the writing classroom. Though these sites may evolve or cease to exist, the types of services they provide will always be analogous to the very basic activities we maintain in our classrooms, such as content storage, delivery, production, etc. Likewise, framing these technologies in Wiggins and McTighe’s concept of backward design means that only the technologies that serve the course’s ultimate purposes should be considered. Instructors may choose to live by the mantra that it’s better to be good at only a few things than remedial at many. The same obviously holds true for technology use: instructors should find tools that make sense to them and their goals, and learn them first.

That being said, there are no fewer than four caveats that have been neglected throughout this article. The most obvious is that these technologies often require WiFi-enabled and projector-enhanced classrooms. Students often also need laptops or cell phones in some cases. Far from denying these access issues, I’ve dealt with them firsthand: I’ve taught students, in rooms without power outlets, who struggled to simply open applications, and I have taught on campuses where computers and Internet access were a luxury. It’s happened to all of us, and we’ve all started from scratch at some point. In such cases, I have shared my frustration with my students, inviting them to discuss the issues of access and equity that such situations present. On occasion we have used paper and pencil (or crayons) to create mock-ups of websites, I have asked students to share laptops or cell phones, or I have simply asked students to complete assignments in a computer lab or library outside of class. None of these alternatives is necessarily ideal; however, they promote salient ethical conversations that we can actively have with our students, as well as an occasion for discussing technology funding and assistance with our colleagues beyond the classroom.

The second caveat is closely related to this issue of access and equity. It should be widely discussed and acknowledged that most of the sites listed in this article are owned and maintained by private companies who ultimately exist to make money. There is nothing wrong with this as a goal. However, instructors and students should be aware that such companies may eventually charge money for once-free products, cease to exist and take users’ content with them, change the user agreements that users are held to, or bury hindrances to open use in the fine print of their respective sites. Website creator Wix is one example of this last point; it has largely been ridiculed as a bait-and-switch operation where users can create professional websites for free and with great ease, but when these users want to host the website anywhere other than Wix’s private servers they are asked to pay for the privilege. In fact, the online composition and rhetoric journal KAIROS singles this site out by name as one that the editors warn their authors against using. On one hand, such a scenario should make all instructors and students wary of anything that is described as free and easy (including this article), but it should also be used as an opportunity to discuss open-access and fair use practices increasingly favored by academics and progressive entrepreneurs. Discussing Creative Commons copyright licenses may be a good place to start such a conversation.

The third caveat is that the nature of Web 2.0 software demands an ethos of sharing, both in resources and in authority. Teachers embracing such technology must be open to relating to their students in different ways once public/private personas are blurred. We must also learn to expect and embrace the fact that technologies we introduce into the classroom may be used for purposes we didn’t initially intend. Approaching this experience with an attitude of experimentation and discovery will allow all participants to creatively find solutions to problems they’ll encounter along the way. It may likewise serve as a catalyst for conversation about students’ right to privacy in their online lives. Discussing students’ evolving roles as writers and Internet users opens the door to discussions not only about privacy but also identity and autonomy. Whether fully acknowledged or not, these issues affect all of us every day and should be seen as kairotic opportunities to discuss intellectual development in the 21st century.

The fourth caveat is the most common for instructors, especially for those teachers who have attempted to use technology in their classrooms only to later eschew the practice altogether. This caveat appears to be the main reason technology in the classroom fails: lack of time. Instructors often don’t have the time to fully experiment and understand new technologies and how these technologies fulfill their classroom goals. Likewise, there is often not enough time for demonstrations or troubleshooting once instructors are using technology in a given course. Frustration is easy for instructors and students alike when they encounter difficulties with foreign concepts. My problem with the interactive boards at Stanford wasn’t the fault of the technology or my colleagues. Because I didn’t take the time to learn how the technology could help me achieve my pedagogical goals, it failed me; and because of that, I’ve unfortunately felt insecure about that particular type of technology ever since. This largely could have been avoided with a smarter use of time. The rubric I have provided in this chapter is meant to serve as a quick guide to making the smartest use of time, especially for those instructors who are interested in technology, but simply don’t have a lot of time to try anything too radical.

In the end, these warnings are only new iterations of fears we’ve all encountered when trying something for the first time. I agree with Kevin M. Leander that we shouldn’t see technology as a curricular topic, but instead “as set of social practices” (30). These social practices—experimenting with technologies and our writing goals, discussing these experiments with our students, and considering the ethics of technology use—are only useful, though, if everyone can share them. Keeping this in mind, every site referenced in this article is free and easy to use; not one site should take longer than a few seconds to download, or more than a few hours to master. However, the list is miniscule compared to the myriad sites and resources waiting to be discovered. To keep up with more, instructors should seek out others who find and review similar sites on Twitter (e.g. users like me, @cgerben, often post exclusively about education and technology) or on blogs, such as Free Technology for Teachers. People and resources like these allow even novice teachers to maintain a sense of community with other instructors who are likewise continually looking for ways to imbue the writing classroom with technology that nearly anyone can access and master within a semester. Such a pursuit need not culminate in expertise, but should almost certainly support creative experimentation.


Thank you to Barry Fishman and Steven Engel of the University of Michigan for contributing to the thinking behind this article and its rubric. Thank you for example contributions from Christine Alfano of Stanford University. Thank you to Matt Jablonski, who continues to inspire me with his tireless work in the often thankless world of public education.

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This text was accepted for publication after an anonymous peer review process.

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