Teaching With New Tools

By Peshe C. Kuriloff

It's been a long time since I've consciously examined my pedagogy. It took years to develop an effective way of teaching and, once I was satisfied that my students were learning what I sought to teach, I saw no reason to change.

From year to year I added and subtracted material, re-sequenced units of my course, altered assignments, and used different strategies for presenting concepts. But my basic pedagogy, and my assumptions about effective teaching and learning, remained the same for 18 years.

The emergence of technology as a teaching tool, however, has changed all that.

First, the bad news: my complacency is shattered, and I feel like a novice teacher again. My dependence on technologists who don't speak the same language and don't share my goals has highlighted my insecurities. Seemingly vast amounts of time are required to get the help I need and to learn the technology I need to know. My inability to master technology on my own has left me frequently feeling frustrated and angry.

Now, the good news: I have suddenly discovered a new world of teaching that offers possibilities for student learning I couldn't even imagine 18 years ago. I feel as if I have greater control over my time and many more opportunities to teach effectively and reach every student. I don't have to rely on class time to communicate with students. Students seem energized by the use of new media and enjoy the challenge of making use of new technologies.

The Promise of New Tools

As a result of a grant from the Mellon Foundation, the Mellon Writing Project is exploring new, electronic pedagogy and producing interesting results. In conjunction with the New Tools for Teaching initiative, we, along with well over 50 other Penn faculty in five different schools, are using an electronic course management program called Blackboard in 57 courses this semester alone to guide our foray into the world of electronic teaching and learning. The courses involve range from Economics to Math to History to our own writing groups.

Blackboard creates a web site for each course and pages to present a course syllabus, course materials, readings, assignments, and links to other web sites. In addition, it offers a number of functions, including the capacity to carry on any number of discussions at once, a chat room for real-time communication, often used for office hours or conferences, and communications tools that enable you to mail to any single member of the class or group of members. It also can create small groups that share a private discussion board and chat room enabling students to communicate easily and work together conveniently without physically meeting.

Most importantly, Blackboard is easy to master for faculty and students. A survey of users indicates that a large percentage are satisfied with the way it functions. You don't need to learn any new languages, and you don't have to "go it" alone. Good technical support has helped to eliminate much of the bad news of teaching with the new tools.

Why Rock the Boat?

The elimination of many negative incentives still doesn't answer the question: why rock the boat? Why would any faculty member choose to pursue technology-intensive teaching when traditional methods seem to be working perfectly well? I can only answer from my own experience. Here are a few reasons commonly recognized by faculty who employ technology in their teaching.

  1. Because it facilitates communication, technology encourages increased interaction--between the instructor and individual students or groups of students, and among students. Instructors can easily contact the whole class or individual students to add information, clarify an assignment or follow up on classroom discussions or activities.
  2. For instructors who assign group work or would like to but find the mechanics too cumbersome, a course management program like Blackboard greatly simplifies the process.Students can read each other's work and respond to it, build an essay together, formulate a position or produce a project--without an overwhelming amount of e-mail clogging their mailboxes. In addition, to ensure that everyone contributes, the instructor can see all the work on the web site.
  3. Electronic communication is making the traditional classroom seem increasingly lonely and isolated. Faculty interested in team-teaching or just collaborating on curriculum units, across departments or across schools, can easily visit each other's classes electronically, answer questions and participate in conversations.When timely information appears in the media or in recent publications, instructors can easily link their students to it. Faculty can make resources available to students and enrich their learning experiences without needing to give up precious class time.
  4. Every year that passes brings us students who are increasingly Internet-savvy and who value the potential for learning technology holds out to them. Many of these students are currently teaching their teachers about the power of these new tools. If we don't reach out to them and employ the latest technology for teaching and learning, they will continue to teach rather than learn from us.

Where Will It All End?

Just as you might hesitate to buy a new computer this year, knowing that one more powerful will hit the market right after you make your purchase, you might want to wait until the field of instructional technology settles down. I sympathize with that impulse. Since I've been forced to jump in, however, I have seen not only the extent of the opportunity but its limits as well. Teaching with technology is not the vast open space that some perceive when they first look into it.

Technology keeps evolving, and playing catch-up is part of the process of mastering this new, unwieldy teaching tool. Once you get the hang of it, however, you can adapt to the hardware and software changes that occur with relentless regularity.

Like the shift from an earth-centered to a sun-centered universe, this shift away from classroom-centered pedagogy to technology-intensive teaching can empower those who dare to think about teaching in new terms. Instead of defining a course by contact hours, we can begin to think about learning outcomes. Instead of reifying the 50-minute class, we can think about teaching and learning in units of varying sizes. Instead of depending heavily on presentation, and on learning by listening, we can reach more students with learning by doing.

The opportunity not simply to change teaching but to improve its effectiveness beckons. If you're interested in hearing more, contact Helen Anderson, co-chair of New Tools for Teaching at anderson@

Dr. Kuriloff is the director of the Mellon Writing Project and Adjunct Associate Professor of English (e-mail


Her essay continues the Talk About Teaching Series into its sixth year as the joint creation of the College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.

Almanac, Vol. 46, No. 21, February 15, 2000