What do BU students say about educational technology?

For this article we interviewed nine students from four of BU’s colleges, with eight different majors and a range of experiences with educational technology. They spoke about the challenges and successes they have experienced with educational technology, the programs that they like and dislike, and specifically what their instructors have done or could do to aid their learning.

Blackboard

Despite the range in these students’ experiences at BU, strong trends in their reactions to educational platforms appeared. Most students approved of Blackboard for its purposes, but many said that there could be more consistency in instructors’ use and organization of their Blackboard content.

“It’s nice to have all your assignments in one place,” said Fernanda Neri, a Biology major in the College of Arts & Sciences. “I can imagine it being very obnoxious having a website for each teacher and each class.” Many spoke to the merit of clear, intuitive organization of content in Blackboard.

“Utilize the folder system,” urged Janiece Nelson, a Marketing major in the School of Hospitality Administration. She noted that her primary frustration with Blackboard is finding a large bank of course materials, but being unable to locate the ones she needs. Blackboard’s grading system was praised, largely because it clearly breaks down the calculations of students’ exam, participation, and assignment grades. Neri praised Blackboard’s “announcements” feature.

“You can get an email every time a teacher makes a post… it’s really nice to get that notification,” she said. Though instructors might assume that a bank of links and documents would be disregarded, students were supportive of instructors who put additional information in the “Resources” tab.

“Professors are able to give us a lot of extra materials,” said Amanda Wenslow, a Film & TV major in the College of Communications.

Digication

Digication has been largely successful at BU in providing a mechanism for assessment. Students use Digication to create ePortfolios in the College of General Studies, the Dental School, the School of Public Health, and a smattering of other schools and departments. Boston University was recently featured in a book called High-Impact ePortfolio Practice as an example of successful ePortfolio use.

Digication can result in beautiful portfolios, and “The interface is pretty easy to use,” said Nelson. “It’s really easy to kind of manipulate it so it looks good, while also being organized.” Within the programs in BU that use Digication it is often left to instructors to decide students’ responsibilities with regards to their ePortfolios. Some instructors go into great detail with Digication, encouraging students to utilize all of the different media and design tools. Others simply require that their students upload essays, or essay drafts and outlines. The end result is not only the creation of evidence of the work that Boston University does for its students, but also evidence for the instructor and student of the learning process that has taken place.

Because of the lack of continuity from class to class, though, sometimes students were given less context about the assignment than others. “I didn’t really see the end purpose to it” said Stephanie Gomez, a Human Physiology major in Sargent College. Gomez said that her experience with Digication could have been improved by “going into more detail about the purpose” and “motivating students to pursue that purpose.”

Neri remembers Digication primarily as a “tool for organization.” Gomez and Neri both used Digication only in their required CAS writing classes, while students in some other programs use Digication more extensively.

Google

Students speak very highly of Google Apps. Using Apps like Docs, Slides, and Sheets they can collaborate on the same document at the same time, knowing that their work will be saved and shared instantaneously. This can be a tremendous help when students are sick or battling through a busy schedule.

It’s really an easy way to do team projects,” said Pedro Pereira, an International Relations major in CAS. Admittedly the applications are more simplistic than some similar platforms. “Microsoft is a lot more mature,” said Nelson.

Despite this limitation, students are using Google Apps. “We constantly use Google Docs to make sure that everyone has the same file that we can work on on our own time,” said Pereira. Instructors do not need to use Google Apps, but it may be useful for them to know that students are largely integrated into Google.

“I’m on [Google Apps] every day for something different,” attested Rachel Chmielinski, a Computer Science major in CAS. Perhaps most importantly, Google Apps can help alleviate the mental and financial stress of computer malfunctions. If a student’s computer breaks, they can work from any friend’s device or a campus computer. Huey Wu, a Comparative Literature major in CAS, survived at BU for two years without a computer, thanks to Google Apps.

Audience response systems

Audience response systems allow instructors to pose questions to their class and receive immediate, anonymous responses from the students’ smartphones or handheld clicker devices. These questions can be useful for gauging the class’ understanding of the content in real time, and many professors use the clickers as a tool for tracking and grading participation as well.

Neri stated that using clickers is: “helpful because it reinforces learning, and asks you questions as a way to keep track of what you’re understanding.”

Wu said: “You can tell that it helps the professor get a feel for the class… which I think is good for everyone.”

In reference to her instructors’ use of clickers Chmielinski states: “I feel like I got a much better understanding of the material… I realized I didn’t understand stuff that I thought I did.” Though the system is fairly straightforward, some students made an important differentiation between methods that can help or hinder clickers’ usefulness to their learning.

“I find them helpful when there’s no grade associated with whether you get the answer correct,” said Gomez. “I think it’s a really good way to test whether you know certain material or you don’t. And then when a grade is subject to it it’s kind of just a pressure.” Paige Breaux, an English major in the College of Arts & Sciences, voiced her desire for free clicker technology (since students are required to purchase the clicker device or app). Clickers also involve a level of user error, such as accidentally pressing the wrong buttons or forgetting a clicker at home.

Echo360

Students who had used Echo tended to praise it highly. It was praised in part because it allows students to keep up with content even when they have to miss class.

I’d rather go to lecture,” said Neri, “but when I’ve had to use [Echo] it’s been great.” Students can also use the lectures to review before exams, and can listen to lectures on higher or lower speeds. Students can review content while walking across campus, eating, or even while working out. Lucy Zhan, a Computer Science major in CAS, pointed out Echo360’s convenience to professors.

“If there’s a snow day or our professor can’t make it to class he just posts a link to the personal captures and then he talks through those slides,” she said. “I think it’s pretty helpful.” Zhan also noted the usefulness of an alternative to intensive note-taking during lecture. If students know they can access the lecture material again later, they can feel more free to absorb the content rather than writing down every detail they can manage.

Interesting takeaways

The students we interviewed did not indicate that they wanted their instructors to bring in the most complex, impressive platforms and devices available. “I mostly do things over, honestly, email, [Microsoft] Word, and any kinds of Google Apps,” said Breaux. Neri even voiced her appreciation for one instructor’s use of an overhead projector, where he writes out notes by hand throughout each lecture. “You copy them down and you go step by step… it’s just more personal,” she said. “He can really emphasize what’s important.”

Student demonstrated that there are really wonderful techniques for using the technologies we already use, as well as unhelpful techniques that can create extra barriers to learning. Instructors might assume that students would not take the time to use additional content, like that available in the “Resources” tab on Blackboard, or supplemental videos on YouTube or MyMedia. Students spoke highly of these tools, though, and of other techniques for increased engagement like the “Announcements” feature on Blackboard or personal capture videos on Echo360. Chmielinski referenced a computer science professor‘s YouTube channel, where he posts videos of step-by-step solutions for sample problems. “Those videos got me through the class,” said Chmielinski.

EdTech is available to help instructors use any of these platforms in the most effective ways possible. For a consultation, information on trainings, or to join one of our user groups, contact us through the askedtech@bu.edu email.