5 Technologies You Should Consider Using in the Classroom

08/12/2014 03:12 pm ET Updated Oct 11, 2014

The news this week has been replete with stories about whether or not iPads or similar devices can contribute much to students' learning. Whatever the answers, what is clear is that online and mobile media technologies aren't going away any time soon. In an environment where students are as likely to look at their phones as take notes, new styles of learning and interaction will continue to present a challenge for educators. As a communication scholar and teacher, I've attended a number of workshops and conferences related to this topic over the past year. Without replacing existing teaching methods, it's clear to me that teaching with new technologies at least offers a host of new strategies for presentation, discussion, or assignments worth considering. I've compiled a list below of some platforms others may find useful in their own teaching.

Since there's so many new tools out there, I've tried to think about each of these from the viewpoint of a bored, skeptical student who might rightly question such technologies as "gimmicky." With that lens filtering my suggestions, here's some programs potentially applicable to many courses, with some rationales next to each:

1) Poll Everywhere. I love this one, although we can definitely put it in the "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" category. Since students bring their cell phones to class and are constantly tempted to start texting friends and others, why not let that impulse serve your educational goals instead? Poll Everywhere replaces "clickers" in the classroom. Instructors can pose a series of prepared questions or take a quick, impromptu poll on a topic. Students then text their answers to the numbers/options presented on the classroom screen, and voila, you've got an involving way of seeing students' thoughts. This method is also great for getting everyone in the class to participate, drawing out those who wouldn't normally respond to instructor prompts.* (www.polleverywhere.com)

2) Powtoons. Somewhere between a Prezi presentation and a video commercial, Powtoons allows students to create professional-looking cartoon videos on any subject matter. I run a campaigns course where students have to create 1-2 minute commercials as part of their final projects. Students in my course have found this program easy to use and a way to bring more creativity to their assignments. If you are working in a completely online course or moving a current class into more of a hybrid online/offline format, you should also consider using this program to create lectures that can be posted online. (www.powtoons.com)

3) Social Media "Sentiment" Analysis. Let's face it, many students already spend countless hours broadcasting their opinions on social media. Whether you're teaching a statistics class covering the concepts of validity and generalizability, or an English class unpacking an author's textual choices, the different programs that claim to measure public "sentiment" on a topic can make unfamiliar subjects more relatable. (For a variety of tools, see http://bit.ly/JZaJGY)

4) The Social Media "Wall." For this one, I recommend first deciding how "public" or "private" your course will be. As much as this strategy presents an opportunity to rework how a course is taught, there's also a level of risk entailed if you choose the more "public" route. Create a class "group" formally or informally through a site like Ning, Google Hangout, or Facebook--or through various programs' instant messenger functions. The instructor can keep this wall up on the screen during class, inviting students to post comments or questions while the session runs. For an even more "public" version of this strategy, you can create a Twitter wall or hashtag to which students can post. This makes the classroom space less private, but it also offers an opportunity to actually produce a larger conversational commons. From my perspective, I consider classrooms private spaces where students should have the ability to experiment, so I would err on the side of limiting the site to course members only. But as new programs and forms of social media develop, this seems like a great strategy for making lectures, in particular, more participatory than traditional formats have permitted.

5) Ethelo Decisions. Moving beyond the simplicity of Poll Everywhere to a tool that promises to bring online research and group decision making fully into the 21st century, Ethelo Decisions is an online collaboration platform that can take students through parts of a research, analysis, and decision making process on any particular issue. As the site outlines, there are survey and voting tools, social media and other sharing features, reports, and data management options all in one place. For the teaching context, what has most stood out to me is the tool's potential to engage students in how collective knowledge might be produced and evaluated. (http://ethelodecisions.com/)

New technologies aren't everything, but they can broaden an educator's repertoire and work with methods of understanding that are already a part of students' everyday lives. In that spirit, if you've found some novel uses for these or any other new technology methods, join me in advancing this conversation on Twitter @DonWaisanen.

*I'd like to acknowledge Shannon VanHorn and Jonna Ziniel's National Communication Association workshop, "There's an App for That," for being especially helpful in drawing my attention to the Poll Everywhere, Powtoons, and social media wall examples.