Forward Thinking: Less is More

As a technology consultant, I have always been very intentional about the tools I introduce into the classroom, but this past year of blended teaching made me even more selective of the tools I chose to support my course.

I worked hard to limit the number of tools I asked my students to use, because they shared after the 2020 spring semester that platform fatigue was a major problem. This was a challenge because, due to the nature of the blended teaching, technology was often the solution to many of the semester’s problems.

To avoid adding unnecessary elements to my course, I developed a series of questions I asked myself before deploying a tool for the 2020-2021 academic year:

  • Did the tool fill a need that was universal across the semester and would it be consistently used throughout the semester?
  • Was the tool something my students were familiar with and, if not, was it intuitive to use?
  • Did the tool directly support one or more of my course objectives?
  • Could I succinctly communicate to my students why the tool was important for their success in the class?

The result was relying heavily on five tools for all my communication, organizational, and pedagogical needs.

  • Zoom: It was used to facilitate the blended experience for in-person and remote students.
  • Blackboard: All course materials were organized here. All assignments/exams were collected and returned here, and all grades were distributed here.
  • Email and For all out of class conversation and dialog, I either used email or to schedule office hours.
  • Google Docs: Collaborative documents were the backbone of all my in-class learning activities – they completely replaced all physical handouts.
  • Perusall: This was something that was new for me. Adding social annotation to my reading assignments gave me insight into students’ understanding of the material but also gave students an opportunity to interact asynchronously with each other in a low stakes way.

The net result of this intentional pairing of tools was clarity both for myself and my students. Working within a constrained toolset can be challenging as there are many great options that can solve specific challenges that arise throughout the semester. That said, as we move to a more traditional semester, I’ll continue to focus on a reduced toolset and investing in making the most of the functionality of the tools I have my students use. There are some efficiencies that I’d like to make in my communication strategy with my students, and I’d love to be able to start using a modern communication tool like Discord or Slack in the fall but, for now, I’m going to stick with the five tools that worked this past spring.

Dr. L. Andrew Bell is a technology consultant in the Teaching and Scholarship Hub at the University of Richmond. He consults with faculty on effective integration of digital tools into their teaching and scholarship. His areas of expertise include data analysis and visualization, digital pedagogy, and neuroscience.  Andrew is also an adjunct instructor at the University of Richmond and teaches courses in neuroscience and data analysis. This past year he taught PSYC359 Data Visualization and Analysis and FYS102 Neuroscience of Photography.