Learning goals can vary for different courses. Some are focused on student understanding of basic content, others want to improve student skills associated with the discipline. But instructors don’t list “playing with cool educational technology” as one of the main learning goals in their course.

Technology, as the saying goes, is a good servant, but a bad master. When considering a new technology, think first about your teaching goals, and any difficulties you may be having. Notice the difference between these two statements:

The second instructor is going to be a much more effective user of the technology, since they are trying to solve a particular instructional problem. But even better is to think more broadly about what your goals for the course are, and how a strong teaching technique can be made possible by the technology:

We have used clickers as an example here, but the principle is the same for any technology tool. Let’s talk about a few more common educational technologies to make this principle clear.

ToolCharacteristicsLess ideal useMore ideal use
YouTubeStreaming video on every topicThe instructor shows a 20-minute video and then asks for comments. Very few students are willing to speak up.An instructor prepares three 5-minute clips of videos, and designs a question sheet to go with it. Students know they will be asked about the questions on an exam or in a paper prompt, so when asked to discuss the answers in a group they willingly do so. The instructor asks for sample answers after each video, and guides the conversation.
TwitterVery short 140-character posts by username.The instructor suggests students can use Twitter as a "backchannel" to ask questions as she lectures. The TA struggles to keep track of posts, many students have their phones out but very few have Twitter accounts.The instructor puts students into groups, and assigns them three historical figures from the reading. Students need to create a "Twitter" conversation between the characters that supports one of two possible interpretations of the reading. Note that Twitter isn't actually used in this example... just the idea of Twitter.
Kahoot! Online competitive quizzing gameThe instructor creates a quiz for every lecture, spending a great deal of time on the project. Students find the fun wanes after several uses, and the question types are simplistic and not like the exams.The instructor creates a few quizzes during the quarter when there are units with particularly significant facts or vocabulary words to memorize. Students are warned the day before so they can study to "win" the competition. On other days, students work on more difficult problems in small groups.

As you can see, sometimes less is more when using technology. If the use of social media is not an important learning goal for your course, it might be simpler to avoid using the tool directly, and consider simpler solutions with the same interesting constraints.

Now that you have seen some examples of why focusing on the tool itself isn’t a great idea, let’s instead list some common teaching “problems,” try to determine the actual learning goal underlying the problem, and then see if there might be a technology that would make that goal more effectively reached.

Problem: Students won’t engage in class

Actual learning goal: What is the skill you are hoping students will practice by talking in class? Do they need to learn how to use the vocabulary of the discipline? Do they need to solve equations? Should they be able to give examples of the theory you just explained? Try to determine what this skill is, as this will guide you in encouraging participation.


  • If you need students to use the vocabulary of the discipline, give them a difficult question that requires the correct vocabulary to solve. Have students work in groups to solve the question, as this will force them to say words out loud and group members can catch incorrect usage.
  • If you want students to respond while you are solving an equation at the board, consider giving students time to work on the equation first, while you walk around to look for places where they get stuck. If students work in groups, you can ask a group to tell you “what their group thinks” is an answer, which is often easier for nervous students.
  • If you want students to give examples after you have just explained a theory, they would probably benefit from some time to process the theory and to look through their notes for examples.

Technology support:

One of the primary benefits to using technology in the classroom is that you can hold students accountable for an activity without having to grade paper submissions. For the activities above, you can use tools like clickers or Canvas quizzes to have students (and student groups) submit their responses.