Technology & Freedom – Experiences from a University class

Another (summer) semester comes to an end. This means time to share a few things that I’ve tried over the past few weeks. During this summer term I was mainly responsible for a class called “Introduction to Computer Systems & It’s Applications”. It’s a subject that is part of the General Education program here at Uni meaning it’s not aimed at ICT students but at (mostly first year) students from different backgrounds and therefore only thought to give a first overview over basic ICT related topics and their real life implications. In short: Showing students that ICT is cool, everywhere and nothing to be afraid of.

While some of the prior lecturers in this subject focused on showing students how to use Windows (XP) and Excel and PowerPoint I figured that’s a bit too old-school and boring these days and most students know their way around a computer. Even if they don’t they would learn it while doing other tasks so I decided not to stick to that, in my eyes, a bit outdated curriculum. Instead I tried to present different topics during our classes so that students could see the diversity of ICT and hopefully take away something that interests them in some way. We talked about how computers work in general, what we need to make them work but also about networks, social media, Augmented Reality, programming (OOP), website development (HTML, CSS) and even about Search Engines, e-Learning and Big Data. That sounds a like a lot – and it is. However we didn’t try to become experts in each field but to get a first idea of each topic and, if someone would find a deeper interest in a certain topic, he or she could study that further. The following approaches have been taken in order to nurture and further this idea.

Self Check-In

One of the smaller annoyances here is that we have to check attendance. I’m not a big fan of giving students credits for simply showing up (what do you do with late shows? or students who only come for the sake of sitting there and then expecting to get credits for it?). But since it’s part of the policy here we have to do it of course. Since it always takes some time I decided to let students check in by themselves. We have a check-in form on my website where students can check themselves in via their ID. Furthermore they can check in via foursquare or FB. Since the classes aren’t too big it’s quite easy to check the check-ins. If classes would be bigger I would only stick to the check-in form of course. Apparently it would be possible to cheat here but since I don’t give to many credits for attendance the motivation to cheat here is not that high. The fact that attendance does not count that much for itself also increased the understanding of pro-active work in the classroom – just sitting around doesn’t help.

You (students) decide

While I do have lots of ideas on how to shake things up in the classroom I don’t want to force students to do something they clearly don’t want. Therefore I offered some votes on my website (anonymous) regarding different things we would do in class. I also let students vote on whether or not we would have an open book exam (open internet) in order to make sure we’re all on the same page. That helped quite a lot since “you said you want that” is always a good argument when it comes to complains – only needed that during fun arguments though – there were no serious disagreements 🙂

Group Work, Presentations, Creating Apps

This is now nothing new but group work & presentations are, of course, always a good way to see whether students understand a topic or not. In this case students had two different assignments to complete (actually only one, the other one was on a voluntary base). The voluntary presentation simply was to create a presentation for a topic out of a pool of topics that haven’t been discussed at the point of the assignment. The idea behind: Students explain topics in their own words and might make fellow students understand it better or, on the other hand, show you where problems lie that you, as lecturer, might not have thought of in the beginning. Worked quite well. We saw presentations about Bitcoins, E-Learning and E-Commerce that were interesting and showed very well what students understood and where they thought problems are root (Quite interesting by the way. More on that in another blog post soon).

The mandatory assignment of the term: Group work. Come up with an idea for an application that ‘helps to tackle a current real world problem’. Here students had to think about how to use everything they learned during class (or more) in order to make the world a better place. I like this kind of assignment since it forces students to be creative and really think about the opportunities technology offers them. Of course they didn’t have to program the application after an “Intro to IT” class but they had to present their ideas in a reasonable way and elaborate on how they would try to make it become a real thing. Again incredibly interesting to see what moves young people and their approaches on solving those issues.

[Tweet ” incredibly interesting to see what moves young people and their approaches on solving those issues #education”]

Most of the groups presented with presentation tools but due to my constant bashing (sorry ;-)) of default powerpoint templates quite many of them decided to give prezi and other presentation tools a try. I’m glad that subliminal message worked out 😉 (No, I’m not saying PowerPoint is bad per se – but it’s good to know how to use it in a different way and that there are alternatives).

Online discussions

On further ‘must do’ assignment in this class: “Comment on technology related articles or blog posts and share them in our google+ community”. Why google plus? Well firstly because I think students should know that there’s more than facebook just for the sake of knowing it and they could simply use their university email address to sign up there since our Uni here is powered by google which would give each and every student an (inactive) google+ profile by default.

Why commenting on tech news? Simple! To stay up to date and see what’s happening while you are living your life. We shared some impressive AR related articles that made students really go “wow” for example. Furthermore our google+ community does not only consist of current but also of some of my prior students which lead to some cool discussions or even helpful explanations by senior students. That’s a great use of social media 🙂

Internet access during exams

As mentioned in my mid-term post I opened the exam for internet usage. This means student were allowed to use electronic devices during the exam to obtain (relevant) information if they  needed to. I worked hard on coming up with “interesting” exam questions and actually had lots of fun doing that since it really got me thinking. The questions weren’t “name this or that” of course but questions that forced students to relate their knowledge of certain topics to each other in order to solve problems of a bigger picture. It wasn’t as ‘easy’ as many students expected (given the fact that most of them were first year students and they were used to high-school exams) but they all understood the idea behind it and said they want to stick to that kind of questions for the finals as well since they provide them with more ‘real life’ relevancy. That’s a great attitude by the way.

[Tweet “”Open Internet” exams provide students with more real life relevancy.” #education”]

Once I’m done with grading I might be able to share a few of those questions in a bit of a different style here to see what you think about that.

How was your (summer) term? Did you use some new technological approaches? Would be glad to hear that in the comments. 

  • Kamolchanok Tansuthiwess

    So, those are exactly what we have been doing during the class! There are many points about it that I like. First, I like that you try to adjust the lesson and bring in some interesting topics that are use in real life and are around us. Also, I start to be more positive with the presentation though I think it’s really a tough work for me. From this class, I realized that I know very less about presenting works. There’s actually many tips and options where I can use to improve my presentation. And one more thing is the google plus. I really have no idea how it looks like and what I can do with it. But I like when you say that there are more things than Facebook and we should know that. So maybe after this I might try using the google plus and other applications that are not quite known in Thailand because it might also be the good.

    • Glad to hear that! Looking forward to what you will be able to do in the future 🙂