Dynamic Uses of Technology to Engage Learners and Enrich Student Learning

Published in:

A National Symposium

November 17–18, 2017

Dillard University
New Orleans, Louisiana


This paper discusses the experiences of four professors who use technology to engage learners and promote learning. Bleidt and Moghadasian explored technology tools to promote collaboration and learning in an online course at Huston-Tillotson University in Austin, Texas. Tobin and Juersivich explored the use of technology in their face-to-face courses at Nazareth College near Rochester, New York.

Exploration 1: Huston-Tillotson University

The overwhelming majority of higher education students enrolled in teacher education programs across the United States take at least one course online (AACTE, 2013). Lack of interaction in these online courses is a concern among educators (Walters, Grover, Turner, & Alexander, 2017). Palloff and Pratt (2007) explained that online learners often experience a “loss of contact, loss of connection, and a resultant sense of isolation” (p. 31). One plausible explanation for feelings of isolation is the much lower level of interaction between classmates in online courses than those taking traditional courses (Rabe-Hemp, Woollen, & Humiston, 2009). Several studies have shown that lack of sufficient learner-learner interaction may cause students to be disengaged and struggle to succeed (Deulen, 2013; Schweizer, Hayslett, & Chaplock, 2008).

Collaborative assignments have the potential to promote engagement between students taking online courses (Conrad & Donaldson, 2012). According to Pachler and Daly (2011), the type of collaborative interaction that results in the creation of artifacts is most likely to promote engagement and learning. Increased engagement made possible by online collaborative assignments has been shown to increase students’ ability to (a) problem-solve (Hiltz, Coppola, Rotter, Turoff, & Benbunan-Fich, 2000); (b) think critically; (c) construct knowledge; and (d) reflect on learning processes (Brindley, Walti, & Blaschke, 2009)

Collaborative assignment support in online environments is complex and challenging (De Laat & Lally, 2004; Hoskins, 2012). Posey and Lyons (2011, p. 361) propose that course designers consider the following five broad categories when designing online environments that support collaboration: (a) activity design, (b) technology, (c) group formation, (d) team building and processes, and (e) assessment. Bleidt (2013) used these categories to examine how course design supported collaboration in an online reading methods course and found technology tools to be one of the greatest challenges. Course design must ensure that technology tools support and encourage collaboration.

Technology tools must support the specific demands and desired goals of collaborative learning activities (Clark & Mayer, 2011). Using multiple tools provides “convenience and flexibility” (Koh, Barbour, & Hill, 2010, p. 199) and encourages interaction among learners (Han & Hill, 2007). Modern technologies best facilitate learning tasks and learning processes (Harasim, 2012); however, many undergraduates lack the advanced technology skills needed to succeed in online learning environments (Burkhard & Roldan, 2009; Kennedy, Judd, Churchward, Gray & Krause, 2008). Therefore, technology support is a critical aspect of course design (Clark & Mayer, 2011).

Bleidt and Moghadasian’s exploration involved an undergraduate online diversity course. The course enrollment is unique in that undergraduate students from five historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) enroll. Each student brings to this online course their own beliefs, experiences, and learning styles. The course experienced low engagement from some students. It is likely these students had difficulty successfully completing the course because of lack of engagement with classmates and course content. The professors looked inside and outside the learning management system (eRacer) to find technology tools they hoped would enable greater engagement. They selected Google Groups and Wikispaces to assist students in the completion of a collaborative assignment. Students were also allowed to use other virtual communication tools. Physical meetings were not permitted.

Wikis are webpages that enable users to edit documents collaboratively. Multiple users can create and edit pages and track changes quickly and simultaneously. Wikis can be publicly open to edit or more restricted by membership. Wikispaces is a web-hosting service. Wikis used exclusively in K-12 or higher education are free, but advanced features incur an annual fee.

Wikis have been the subject of educational reseach for more than a decade. Wikis can help learners construct knowledge actively rather than consume it (Boulos, Maramba, & Wheeler, 2006). Krasnova, Gorbatova, Kudryashova, and Popova (2016) found the construction of wikis could positively affect students’ attitude towards group work. Martinsen and Miller (2016) concluded wikis fostered greater collaboration in a composition-based project than when it was conducted on paper. Cilliers (2017) observed the majority of the students who used wikis in a study agree that the use of wikis had improved collaboration in the course.

For our project we decided the Calendar and Event Invitation features of Google Groups would be appropriate for the group leaders to use to set up their teams, call team members, and get the projects rolling. Google Groups is a free Google service that can be used to create and participate in asynchronous threaded forums.

Twelve adult teacher education students (ages 18-38) participated in this exploration. Eleven were female. Seven students classified themselves as African American, two students as Hispanic, Non-White, and three students as mixed (African American/Hispanic). Students were divided into five teams of two or three. The collaborative assignment consisted of constructing a wiki page about culturally responsive teaching. To determine if the technology tools facilitated collaboration the professors used (a) student surveys, (b) assignment grading rubrics, (c) peer evaluations, (d) online correspondence between students, and (e) communications between students and the instructor.

The twelve students that completed the collaborative project all received passing grades determined by the grading rubric, peer assessment, and analysis of students’ online communication. The quality of work on all wikis was good to excellent. Peer evaluations showed that each group experienced issues with at least one member not communicating regularly and contributing. However, an evaluation of online correspondence between students showed great effort was made to encourage all members to participate. Correspondence between students and the instructor also showed that students’ sought the instructor’s help in getting non-communicative members to participate and valued the instructor’s advice on how to encourage participation. Online correspondence between students and the instructor showed that some students struggled with Google Groups and setting up and using their Wikispaces account. However, survey responses showed that students felt confident in using these tools. Students felt that Wikispaces and email were the most effective collaboration tools. Despite selecting tools that encourage true collaboration, much of the effort students made towards completion of their project could best be classified as “divide-and-conquer.” For this assignment, the type of collaboration expected was that each student would add content and suggest edits and revisions to the content contributed by others, making the writing process recursive, where each change prompts others to suggest more changes.

Exploration 2: Nazareth College

We strongly believe that students learn best when exposed to dynamic models that allow them to attach meaning to abstract concepts. While there are many ways to accomplish this goal, the use of technology affords a variety of opportunities to flexibly adapt instructional activities to meet student needs, to demonstrate complex concepts, and to allow students to actively engage with course content at a deep level. Using the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles (Meyer, Rose, & Gordon, 2016), we will provide two examples of how we incorporate technology to engage and enrich learning.

UDL is a set of principles that provide a blueprint for curricula that is flexible and customizable such that all students are able to be strategic, knowledgeable, intentional, and motivated in their learning (National Center on Universal Design for Learning, 2017). Since learners differ in how they perceive and comprehend information, navigate environments, express knowledge, and are motivated to learn, educators should provide multiple means of representation, multiple means of action and expression, and multiple means of engagement (National Center on Universal Design for Learning, 2017). These three principles, along with their accompanying guidelines, can be applied to any curriculum to remove potential learning barriers and maximize learning opportunities.

One of the big ideas in calculus is the relationship between average and instantaneous rates of change. To understand this relationship, students were asked to investigate the motion of a door equipped with an automatic door closer. They were provided with an actual demonstration and asked to relate it to a 2D bird’s-eye view of the door’s motion and a graph of the door’s angle as a function of time illustrated in a dynamic geometry environment. To familiarize them with the technology interface and how it illustrated the context of the problem, students were encouraged to play with the technology by pressing the “Open Door” button and observing the relationship between the door’s motion and the graph (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. 2D door and corresponding graph
Figure 1. 2D door and corresponding graph

Students manipulated the technology to analyze, interpret, and make connections among previously learned mathematical concepts and terminology and the door’s operation. Then they were asked to analyze and make connections with respect to the new concept being learned: rates of change. They did this by answering focused questions that required purposeful manipulation of the technology and interpretation of its feedback. For instance, students interpreted the meaning of the average rate of change in the context of the door’s movement and then made the connection to the slope of the secant line. They used the technology to produce multiple average rates of change in an organized table, and used the table and graph to analyze the average rate of change as the change in time became infinitesimally small. Students were then asked a series of carefully constructed questions to provoke disequilibrium in which they could use their prior knowledge and technology manipulation to come to equilibrium. Students had to grapple with the fact that the technology showed a line that used to be the secant line (prior to the movement) for which the average rate of change was the slope. However, the technology also shows that the computation for the average rate of change is now undefined. Clearly the line displayed has a slope, but the “slope formula” cannot be used to evaluate it. Students could use the movement they witnessed when they pushed the button t1=t2 to describe the limiting process and the new measurement they obtained through this limiting process using the table of values (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Representing instantaneous rate of change
Figure 2. Representing instantaneous rate of change

Students were then provided with the mathematical definition of the instantaneous rate of change and debriefed about the relationship they discovered. The investigation concluded by students determining why the instantaneous rate of change is more helpful in describing the door’s motion than the average rate of change.

This investigation provided multiple representations in the form of tables, diagrams, graphs, and formulas. Furthermore, these representations were hot-linked in that students could make adjustments in one representation and immediately see the corresponding change in another. This allowed students to choose how to act upon their discoveries and express them using a variety of methods and strategies. Multiple means of engagement were provided by situating average rates of change within a context familiar and authentic to all students (our classroom door had an automatic door closer). Engagement was sustained throughout the investigation by allowing students to explore the problem and make sense of complex ideas, and thus recognize for themselves the value and salience of the learned material.

This investigation provided multiple representations in the form of tables, diagrams, graphs, and formulas. Furthermore, these representations were hot-linked in that students could make adjustments in one representation and immediately see the corresponding change in another. This allowed students to choose how to act upon their discoveries and express them using a variety of methods and strategies. Multiple means of engagement were provided by situating average rates of change within a context familiar and authentic to all students (our classroom door had an automatic door closer). Engagement was sustained throughout the investigation by allowing students to explore the problem and make sense of complex ideas, and thus recognize for themselves the value and salience of the learned material.

Vocal cord vibration is explained in part by the complex and multifaceted myoelastic-aerodynamic theory of phonation, which was introduced to students using multiple means of representation, including a written definition, an animated drawing of a lateral view of the vocal cords vibrating in slow motion, and a video showing a superior view of actual vocal cord vibration during endoscopic examination. Providing this information in various formats helped all students, regardless of learning style, begin to develop the ability to articulate the components of this theory.

Once students were able to list and define each of the components, instructional activities shifted to facilitating development of students’ ability to describe how the components interact to create vocal cord vibration. These activities were designed to allow multiple means of action and expression, as students were encouraged to discuss, contemplate, and write about the connections in their own way. Students were first asked to work as a whole group to apply the components of this theory to explain a video that compares the vibratory patterns produced by whoopee cushions of varying sizes. This amusing video clearly illustrated the aerodynamic principles that are active during vocal cord vibration, providing another means of engaging student interest and building motivation. Finally, students were given time to think on their own or discuss with their neighbors before re-watching the video, after which they applied what they had learned by explaining a static image showing all phases of vocal cord vibration. This activity also provided multiple means for students to engage with the content, as students were free to choose how they documented these concepts for themselves. Ultimately, implementing the principles of UDL facilitated students’ ability to describe the components identified in this theory and how they work together to control vocal cord vibration.


Technology offers the opportunity to engage learners with each other and course content. Through deliberate and careful exploration of our teaching practices with technology, we improved our teaching and student learning. We plan to continue to explore uses of technology in our teaching.


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Spring 2018: Engaging With Diversity in the College Classroom