Category Archives: Using Technology

Quote of the Day

On notebook computers in the classroom:

Devices have become security blankets. Take the time to wean yourself. …  [L]eave the laptop behind.  In a lecture, you’ll only waste your time and your parents’ money, disrespect your professor and annoy whoever is trying to pay attention around you by spending the whole hour on Facebook.  You don’t need a computer to take notes—good note-taking is not transcribing. All that clack, clack, clacking … you’re a student, not a court reporter.  And in seminar or discussion sections, get used to being around a table with a dozen other humans, a few books and your ideas.  After all, you have the rest of your life to hide behind a screen during meetings.

—Christine Smallwood (source: “Ditch Your Laptop, Dump Your Boyfriend,”  NY Times, 26-Sep-2010, p. WK12).

Posted in Student Participation, Using Technology | 1 Comment

Multitasking, revisited

In my December 2 post I wondered about the appropriate role of mobile devices in the classroom. Since writing that column, I’ve discovered four relevant references that may influence one’s thinking on the issue.

1. PBS Frontline, “Digital Nation” (February 2, 2010, Season 28, Episode 3, What is the effect of media multitasking on society, education, brain development, and the economy? Interviews with researchers reveal what we now know about how badly the human brain multitasks and how some multitasking is impairing our ability to think deeply, even after the computer is turned off. In light of this research, the documentary challenges conventional wisdom about the role of technology in the classroom, yet perhaps most intriguing is the coverage of a Stanford study (see #2).

2. Ophir, Nass and Wagner, “Cognitive Control of Media Multitaskers” (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2009, vol. 106, no. 37). This study shows that students who think they are highly effective multitaskers are actually quite the opposite, or as Stanford’s Clifford Nass said in a BBC interview: “The shocking discovery of this research is that [high multitaskers] are lousy at everything that’s necessary for multitasking.” See additional coverage in Wired Magazine and The Associated Press.

3. Maggie Jackson, Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age (Prometheus Books, 2008). Jackson is another who argues that despite the cultural acceptance of multitasking, such practices are undermining our own attention skills; she cites more scientific studies that suggest that we have become so distracted by multitasking that we are losing the ability to think deeply about problems. In a video interview posted on her website (, she asks,

What are the repercussions for a democracy when citizens are surrounded by information and are less and less capable of creating knowledge or learning from that information?

Jackson says that the average knowledge-based worker in the US now switches tasks every three minutes, and about half of these are interrupting. If you are wondering about the financial toll of all this multitasking and disruption, you may be interested in this…


Posted in Instructional Technology, Students' Thinking, Uncategorized, Using Technology | 3 Comments

More on Mobile Devices in the Classroom

This is a reply/follow-up to the November 9 post that raises important pedagogical questions about the role of mobile technology in the classroom.

I’d like to back up and ask a basic question. The number of students who now carry iPhones or Blackberries is noteworthy, not to mention those who text from standard cell phones. Given this level of potential distraction, has anyone developed a list of best practices for managing mobile devices in the classroom? What do you say in your syllabus? What is the appropriate response to a ringing cell phone? How about the student who sends text messages or the evening MBA who steps out to answer work-related calls? I want to give courtesy/respect, but the collective effect of 24 executives with 24 Blackberries is becoming downright disruptive.

Mobile phone jammers are illegal under the FCC’s Communications Act of 1934 (as amended by the Telecommunications Act of 1996). Scratch that idea.

I’ve been watching with interest Broadway’s struggle with changing etiquette. Did you see Hugh Jackman’s response when a ringing cell phone interrupted his late-September 2009 performance of “A Steady Rain”? According to the WSJ, Jackman is among a growing number of performers who are breaking from their characters to confront cell phone users, rogue photographers and videographers. How many times did you break from your script this semester?


Posted in Classroom Management, Instructional Technology, Uncategorized, Using Technology | 8 Comments

Back to Basics: Resisting the Allure of Web Technology in the Classroom


Cartoon from Paul Silli's blog post "Why Should School Districts Invest in Technology."

James Hoff, a Fellow at the Schwartz Communication Institute, just posted to the Institute’s blog a provocative argument against teaching with technology entitled “Back to Basics: Resisting the Allure of Web Technology in the Classroom.” Bellow is a snippet.

As a profession we seem to have thoughtlessly embraced the idea of technology precisely because we see it as a way of making learning easier and more accessible for more of our students. Obviously—the logic goes—our students are comfortable using the Internet and social networking tools, so why not allow them to use those skills to learn? This kind of thinking is common among instructors who embrace popular culture because they think it will help their students “relate” to the course material. These are the same teachers who spend class time screening Hollywood versions of Shakespeare because students are supposedly incapable of understanding Elizabethan English or who teach rap lyrics or song lyrics as poetry, because it’s easier for students to get the difference between a tenor and a vehicle when it’s Tupac or Bob Dylan speaking than when it’s Dylan Thomas or Langston Hughes. But our calling as educators extends beyond merely providing our students with opportunities to learn material. As educators we are also responsible for providing our students with experiences which they would not otherwise have access to, such as the experiences that result from finding solutions to difficult problems, engaged and thoughtful conversation, and collegial argument. But even more than this, it is important that we offer our students alternatives to the kinds of experiences provided by the technology of mass media. If we are going to insist on teaching them how to get by in the corporate world they’ve been given, we need to at least teach them that other worlds are still possible.

You can read the entire post and comment on it here.

Posted in Instructional Technology, Student Participation, Students' Thinking, Using Technology | 1 Comment

VOCAT and the Question of Openness

x-posted from

It recently occurred to me that very little has been written about the Schwartz Communication Institute’s most ambitious and potentially most promising project, our Video Oral Communication Assessment Tool, or VOCAT. I have presented on VOCAT a number of times over the years (most recently at the 2009 Computers and Writing conference in June), but have not yet written about it in any kind of real detail. So it’s high time to remedy that.

VOCAT is a teaching and assessment web application. It is the fruit of a collaboration between the Schwartz Institute and mad genius code-poets at , Cast Iron Coding, Zach Davis and Lucas Thurston. It is still very much in development (perpetually so) but is already in use in introductory speech communication and theater courses as well as a number of assessment projects. Our career center used it effectively a few semesters ago as well. To date, approximately 3200 Baruch students have used the tool.

VOCAT was developed in recognition of the principle that careful, guided review of video recordings of their oral presentations (or of any performance, for that matter) can be remarkably effective for aiding students in becoming confident, purposeful and effective speakers. It serves as a means for instructors to easily provide feedback on student presentations.  It enables students to access videos of their performances as well as instructor feedback and to respond to both. It likewise aggregates recorded presentations and instructor feedback for each user and offers an informative snapshot of a student’s work and progress over the course of a given term or even an entire academic career. Presentations can be scored live, as students perform, or asynchronously once the videos have been uploaded. (Our turnaround time at this stage is between one and seven days depending on how many sections are using the tool at once — once some of the key steps happen server-side, turnaround time will not be as much of a concern.) Built on the open source TYPO3 content management system, it is a flexible, extensible and scalable web application that can be used at once as a teaching tool and as a means of data collection for research or other assessment purposes. (Screenshots are available here. I am also happy to share demo login info with anyone who would like to take a look — please email me at mikhail [dot] gershovich [at] baruch [dot] cuny [dot] edu.)

While VOCAT is quite feature-rich at this early stage, especially when it comes to reporting, data export, and rubric creation, we are always thinking about ways in which the tool can be made more robust and flexible. Currently, we are playing around with adding a group manager feature for group presentations, tagging for non-numeric assessment, moving from QT to Flash video, video annotation, as well as server-side video processing and in-line video and audio recording. We are also considering allowing users to choose to enable social functionality to take advantage of web 2.0 tools for sharing and commenting on one another’s work. And since, at its core, VOCAT is a tool for aggregating and responding to anything that can be uploaded, we’re thinking about other uses to which it could be put. It could easily, for example, be adapted for writing assessment. And someone once suggested that it could be useful for teaching bedside manner for medical students. Adapting VOCAT for these purposes is hardly a big deal.

The platform on which VOCAT is built is open source but the tool itself is not yet open. Right now, it is Baruch’s alone. Whether it should stay that way is a question much discussed around here. Here at the Institute we face several critical issues around open education, not the least of which is conflicting views on student access of Blogs@Baruch. In regards to VOCAT, however, the one thing constantly on my mind is the tension between an internal drive to share the tool as an open-source web application and build a community around it (there are no shortage of interested parties) and the pressures (or maybe a pernicious institutional common sense) that seem to compel us to keep VOCAT proprietary and use it to generate as much revenue as possible. I have heard arguments that VOCAT should be Baruch’s alone — that we should charge for its use and seek private funding for its deployment and development. This is a business school, after all, and I’m sure promoting and marketing VOCAT could be an interesting project for an upper division Marketing course.

Yet, I am inclined to believe that VOCAT should be shared freely and widely with other institutions and that other developers should be encouraged to develop for it.  A great many more students would benefit and development would certainly be accelerated as more and more schools add features they need that could then be adopted for use here. Were VOCAT open, in other words, it would evolve quickly and probably in ways we haven’t even imagined. And that is very exiting.

In the coming months, I hope to continue to present on VOCAT and to gain insights into the roles it can play in communication intensive courses or in a communication-focused curriculum of any sort. More importantly, I would like to move towards opening it up and will work with our developers on the features and functionality that facilitate sharing. I hope also to draw upon the tremendous expertise of my friends and colleagues involved in the open education movement and learn from those who have worked with and developed various open source tools for teaching and learning. Listening to others’ ideas for VOCAT has been invaluable to thinking through what this web app could ostensibly do with the right sort of development.  could be and how to best realize its full potential as a teaching tool — both in terms of deployment, training, and development.

Posted in Assessing Learning, Communication Skills, Student Participation, Teaching Large Classes, Using Technology | 6 Comments

Protesting Blackboard 8.0

This post is being written in response to the unreliability of Blackboard 8.0—outages, slowness and bugs, oh my! Are we beta testing? Some didn’t realize how dependent we’ve become upon Blackboard until it went down for three consecutive days in mid March 2009.

As I hear rumors that Blackboard is likely to remain unreliable with periodic outages, I’ve quietly been setting up workarounds so the show can go on. Below are some of my tricks; apologies for undoubtedly provoking the ire of some of my friends in corporate IT. And Kevin Wolff in BCTC, everyone says you are a miracle worker. Seriously. Thanks from all of us in the faculty.

Question 1: True or false? Baruch offers a service so you can post items on the web, even when Blackboard is down.


Faculty can sign up for their own blog with Baruch’s Bernard L. Schwartz Communications Institute (the sponsors of this blog). The blogs are easily formatted to have the look and feel of a web page (example). Post away! (Another option is the eReserve.)

Question 2: True or false? When Blackboard is down and you want to post a giant file, you can send emails with large attachments (say, up to 1 gigabyte) for free?


Posted in Using Technology | 14 Comments

Who Put Your Exam on the Web?

The year was 1997. During a graduate school take-home exam in abstract algebra, one of my fellow students emailed the questions to and received answers before the exam was due.

Fast forward to 2005. One of my international graduate students showed me a website hosted in his home country (in a language not based on the Roman alphabet, therefore not easily searched by most westerners). Students post homework, exams, and solutions for many North American universities, indexed by class and professor.

I was happy to see that the Wall Street Journal wrote about these issues in their 9-April-2009 article “Do Study Sites Make the Grade?” by A.M. Chaker, pp. D1-D2. [1] If you aren’t aware, online study sites give students access to homeworks and exams posted by hundreds of thousands of registered users. They are the old sorority/fraternity files in the Internet age. According to the article, solutions to 225 textbooks are also now on the web. Furthermore, students post and answer questions from fellow users around the globe.


Posted in Academic Integrity, Learning Goals and Objectives, Using Technology | 6 Comments

Web-based Homework?

Have you noticed that textbook publishers are promoting web-based homework systems such as Prentice Hall’s Grade Assist (PHGA), McGraw-Hill’s Homework Manager and Wiley’s eGrade?

All 20 sections of Finance 3000 are using the McGraw-Hill product. Students do homework online and receive instantaneous feedback (with solutions), professors enjoy automated grading, and the coordinator appreciates bolstered grading fairness across sections. No two students get the same question due to randomized seed numbers (e.g., student 1: “solve X + 219 = 567”; student 2: “solve X + 98 = 673”). If a student doesn’t like his/her score, the entire problem set may be redone, with new seed numbers, and the professor’s grade report includes the score of every attempt.

I trialed PHGA with 80 MGT 3121 students, spring 2008. Students complained that they often reasoned correctly, but made errors inputting numeric answers in the software, and thus redid entire assignments (with new seed numbers) to get the points they felt they deserved. In some cases I had to agree with the students—the software is not perfect. My larger concern is that none of the types of questions that promote deep learning are available in the software. Rather, standard “textbook” questions—questions with a single correct answer such as “determine the reorder point and reorder quantity” or “forecast demand on day 150″—lulled students into deep comas. It’s about as exciting as the computerized SAT test.

Worried that web-based homework trades richness of student thinking for my convenience, I stopped using the software.


Posted in Grading, Teaching Large Classes, Using Technology | 4 Comments

Breaking Free of the Podium

Let me say up front that I’m a walker, a roamer, someone who likes to circulate around the classroom while lecturing. My intent is to make sure that no part of the classroom feels like a neglected corner (and perhaps to ensure that the sleepy students or the ones drifting away remember that I am still there). On those days, though, when I am doing a slide presentation, my desire to move about is undercut by the tedious task of returning to the podium to click the mouse or keyboard to advance my next slide. Last year, I invested about $25 of my own money to purchase a presentation remote control that would allow me to move slides forward (or backward). After using the remote extensively in the past twelve months, I can highly recommend it.

Setting up the remote is dead simple. There are usually two parts to the remote: a receiver unit that looks like a flash drive and is plugged in to any USB port on the machine you’ll be using and the remote itself, which is usually about the size of a thick highlighter pen. Once you plug in the remote, the computer will take a few moments to recognize just what kind of a device you are setting up and then let you know you are good to go.

Getting the hang of clicking while you walk about is easy and, ultimately, an act of liberation.

Posted in Using Technology | 6 Comments

.ppt? . . . pfft!

In 2002, after most of the initial kinks had been worked out of the Vertical Campus, I had the opportunity to teach a large lecture class (MSC 1003–the music appreciation course, a.k.a. Music in Civilization) using all the smart technology available.

I decided to try PowerPoint (known by its .ppt file extension). I slogged through the program, determined to make slides for three lectures. I compiled some nice illustrations of sound waves and musical instruments, discovered pleasant fonts and colors, added some zippy effects, and spent a lot of time trying out the various bells and whistles. In the end, I found the product ossifying. Something about the slides made them impossible to “riff off of,” as musicians might say. I was disappointed in the software, but figured, “It must be me,” since I was age 50, and this was a new technology that demanded a more malleable brain and a youthful receptiveness to the “new media” I suppose I had lost.

Over the last few years, I’ve had the opportunity to see two, much younger colleagues teach on straightforward music-historical topics using PowerPoint. The first instructor presented a mess of slides, filled with typos and formatting inconsistencies, quite an unstructured piece of work that was hard for me to follow. The second instructor was worse. Besides using a historically inappropriate illustration (a saccharine, late 19th-century rendering of Martin Luther), the second colleague provided too much information. Each of the slides comprised long lists of seven or eight bullet points with a mass of detail. Furthermore, he was incapable of reading the muddle of facts. The student seated next to me was furiously copying the useless text (e.g., “Luther married a nun, Katherine von Bora when he was 42 and she was 26”–remember, this is a music class). My other experiences viewing ppt presentations have not been much better than these.

Hmm. At that point I knew something was wrong. I knew it wasn’t me.


Posted in Teaching Large Classes, Using Technology | 12 Comments