Considering Technology for Teaching

What is Technology?

An exploration of technology for teaching should begin with considering what technology in fact is. Derek Bruff, author of Intentional Tech (2019), testifies that the most useful technology he has been able to incorporate into the classroom is “wheels on chairs” (p. 1). The ability to arrange students in different configurations, facilitate small group work, whole-class discussions, pair work, or other activities leads to a classroom more productive of student learning (ATL Teaching Guide on interactive methods). With rolling chairs, instructors can orient their furniture in any way most conducive to student learning. Technology for teaching, then, might be any device or service—of which digital tools is one category—aimed at enhancing student learning.

Teaching with digital technology is not necessary for positive student outcomes, and instructors should not force technology where it is ill-fitting. Ideally, instructors investigate and adopt a particular technology that is accessible for all to solve a specific problem related to their learning objectives (Kuhlenschmidt, 2010; Miller, 2019). But when instructors use digital technology thoughtfully, it can, like wheels on chairs, enhance student learning. Teachers frequently leverage devices and services ranging from clickers and cell phones to PowerPoint, YouTube, Khan Academy, Twitter, and blogging software.  

Key Pedagogical Uses of Technology

Bruff (2019) describes several avenues by which digital technology can provide important learning opportunities.

Times for Telling

Students often have trouble learning new concepts because the material conflicts with their existing “mental models,” that is, the cognitive frameworks by which we navigate the world (Zull, 2002). For instance, when most Americans cross a street they first look to their left for oncoming traffic. If an American is in London, it could lead to a deadly mistake. Likewise, students often bring inaccurate or unhelpful mental models to their classes. Instructors can create “times for telling,” in which students become open to revising their mental models, by giving students a problem they cannot solve using their existing mental models—what Ken Bain calls creating “expectation failure” (Bain, 2004). Digital technology, such as clickers, can play a role in this. For example, in a statistics class, an instructor might present students with the following profile: Bill “is intelligent but unimaginative, compulsive, and generally lifeless. In school he was strong in mathematics but weak in social studies and English.” Using their clicker devise, students will then rank of the following statements in order of decreasing likelihood:

  • Bill is a physician who plays poker for a hobby.
  • Bill is an architect.
  • Bill is an accountant.
  • Bill plays jazz for a hobby
  • Bill Surfs for a hobby
  • Bill is a reporter
  • Bill is an accountant who plays jazz for a hobby
  • Bill climbs mountains for a hobby

Apparently, most students believe Bill’s being an accountant is most likely because they see accountants as good at math and as very boring people. This isn’t a bad guess. It turns out that students also believe that it is more likely that Bill is an accountant who plays jazz as a hobby than that Bill just plays jazz as a hobby. But this can’t be true statistically (Bruff, 2019, pp. 7-12). This creates a moment where students can see that their mental model was inadequate and become open to revision.   

Opportunities to Practice

In a traditional lecture style classroom, students have minimal opportunity to practice and receive feedback during class. By incorporating questions for retrieval using clickers or free-response with Twitter, instructors can increase students’ retention and comprehension of material (Bruff, 2009; see also ATL Teaching Guide How Students Learn). In the flipped learning model, technology can facilitate greater in-class practice (using interactive methods) by moving students’ first exposure to the material before class. Such exposure need not be digital, but technologies such as videos be efficient ways to deliver content before class. Using a blended learning model, students can even get additional retrieval practice outside of class with online quizzes and video quizzes or higher-level thinking practice by collaborating on Google Docs or discussion boards.

Thin Slices

Much of the evidence of student learning is not captured in summative assessments, like final projects and exams. Instructors also want to unveil the “thin slices” of learning, “the little bits of learning that are easy to miss if [instructors are] not attentive” (Bruff, 2019, p. 56). In the scholarship of teaching and learning, measuring these thin slices of learning is usually called formative assessment. Digital technology can be helpful in demonstrating how students are making sense of information on their way to summative assessments (Bass, 2012). For instance, a digital timeline can disclose what information students think is important and their views of the chronological relationships in the material. With Twitter, students can share their informal reflections and daily experiences related to the course (Lang, 2013). Social bookmarking—finding, saving, and sharing internet resources related to a topic—can reveal how students are gathering and interpreting information and help students build knowledge (de Carvalho et al., 2015). Teachers should consider what service or device can make visible their students’ understanding.  

Learning Communities

Students learn not only directly from the instructor, but from and with each other. Services like Twitter, blogs, Flipgrid, wikis, and YouTube can help students engage and learn with one another and the public outside of the classroom. For instance, a teacher might require students to engage in class-related research and post their observations under a standard hashtag. Not only do these platforms facilitate student interactions, but students perceive these audiences as authentic, prompting them often to higher quality work. Students can also refine their understanding in community or work on group projects by collaborating on Google Docs or discussion boards.


Bain, Ken. (2004). What the best college teachers do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bruff, Derek. (2019). Intentional tech. Principles to Guide the Use of Educational Technology in College Teaching. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press.

Bruff, Derek. (2009). Teaching with classroom response systems: Creating active learning environments. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Bass, Randy. (2012). “Disrupting Ourselves: The Problem of Learning in Higher Education.” Educause Review.

de Carvalho, C. R. M., Furtado, E. S., & Furtado, V. (2015). Does content categorization lead to knowledge building? An experiment in a social bookmarking service. Computers in Human Behavior, 51, 1177–1184.

Lang, J. (2013). How Orwell and Twitter Revitalized My Course. The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Kuhlenschmidt, Sally. (2010). Issues in technology and faculty development. In Kay J. Gillespie, Douglas L. Robertson et al., (Eds.), A Guide to Faculty Development, second edition (pp. 259-274): San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Miller, Michelle. (2019). How to Make Smart Choices about Tech for Your Course. The Chronicle of Higher Education Advice Guide.

Zull, J. (2002). The art of changing the brain: Enriching teaching by exploring the biology of learning. Sterling, VA: Stylus.  

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