If you’re not already on multiple social media platforms, we’re sure you’re aware of how powerful they are. You may even notice that social media can be so powerful, students may become distracted while they should be paying attention during your class. While there are concerns when it comes to to using social media, The Tech Edvocate has put together strategies to make social media work to your advantage in the classroom. Read more here.

Submitted by: Carol Damm, MEd, Instructional Designer

In a previous blog post, I discussed the effective use of polling in the higher ed classroom as a pedagogical tool to engage and challenge students. There are a number of online tools, both freely available and subscription based, that you have access to, depending on your requirements and goals for their use.

You can also consider using clickers which are available at many departments. You will need to access an online interface to work with them. However, they do have an advantage over other online tools. Students don’t need to have their own device in order to participate. In most of the apps that I will mention, students will need to have a smart phone or laptop in order to engage with questions. If you discourage the use of laptops or mobile devices during class, then a clicker system might be preferable.

Google Forms (https://docs.google.com/forms)

As part of the Brandeis Google Drive system, Forms allows you to limit the access to any surveys or questions that you develop to Brandeis-only users. Another advantage is that you can see the immediate results from any polling in graphical format. It will also send all responses to a spreadsheet which you can then use to gain more information, depending on your needs. Forms has the added capability of changing your poll or survey into a graded quiz. You can opt to keep the responses anonymous or to record the email address of the respondent. The surveys can be accessed through a hyperlink on the student’s laptop or mobile device. They can also be embedded into your course site in LATTE.

Poll Everywhere (https://www.polleverywhere.com)

Poll Everywhere is free for up to 25 responses per poll. If you want to include more students then you would be required to pay a subscription fee. It works with any device through SMS text voting or through a web interface. The students will see immediate responses to your questions. You can also embed the polls in a Powerpoint or Keynote slide show, so there is seamless transition when making a presentation.

Socrative (https://socrative.com)

Socrative is similar to Poll Everywhere. The free version allows you to poll up to 50 students per session and the Pro version is more affordable than Poll Everywhere if you were to plan on using it in an ongoing basis. As far as I know, it will not allow the user to embed the poll into a slide show.

These are just three online options among many. If you want to poll without students’ devices, Plickers (https://plickers.com) has a unique system where you give students pre-printed cards which they hold up to be scanned by your mobile device. The Plickers app compiles the responses and immediately shows the results. The laminated Plickers cards are free for up to 40 participants.

If you have any questions or would like some support in integrating polling into your course materials, feel free to contact Carol Damm, MEd, Instructional Designer via email at cdamm@brandeis.edu.

Web conferencing technology has become a mainstream way of communicating across distances and the uses for it are endless. Applications in the classroom can lead to rich and engaging experiences with people in virtually any location, as long as they have an internet connection, as well as provide flexibility for faculty and students on campus and off.
Brandeis now offers ZOOM, a web conferencing tool that will allow you to hold virtual meetings for many different purposes. A few common uses for the software in the classroom include bringing in guest presenters, teaching a class remotely if an instructor is unable to physically be on campus, or facilitate an entire class remotely due to inclement weather. Programs at Brandeis are now also utilizing the software to facilitate fully online courses, expanding access to students all over the world.
ZOOM offers a number of interactive features that allow virtual meetings to run as if everyone was in the same physical space. For example, screen sharing allows one to share a presentation as they would through a projection system in a classroom. Breakout rooms allow the instructor to break everyone into small groups for discussion and collaboration and the polling feature allows the host to create questions for the group to answer, which can often lead to rich discussions.
ZOOM host accounts are available to all Brandeis faculty, staff and students and can host meetings for up to 50 participants. More information about Zoom can be found on the Brandeis Knowledge Base. Support inquiries can be sent to webconferencing@brandeis.edu.

Submitted by: Carol Damm, MEd, Instructional Designer

Polling students, whether in a face-to-face or online class setting, can be an effective pedagogical tool. I don’t refer to opinion surveys that students receive to assess a particular course. Rather, the polling that I refer to may consist of a single question or a group of questions that the instructor will put forward to assess students’ comprehension of a topic, to survey students’ opinion in real time in order to collect a reaction, to solicit direction for that day’s work, and to even vote on an issue.

There are several advantages to polling over simply asking a question or directing a question to an individual student. When asking a question out loud to the whole class, most commonly, a few students will raise their hands while others will sit quietly. You cannot tell if the quiet students know the answer and are just shy or nervous or if they don’t know the answer. They may be daydreaming, and even if they aren’t they will most likely not be fully engaged while their classmate replies to the question. The alternative of directing a random student to answer the question can increase the stress level in the class for both the student answering as well as other students. (Now, I think stress can be a positive force but it has been shown to inhibit students’ ability to process information (1).)

However, an instructor can take that same question and ask the class as a whole for a response, and with the use of an online polling system gauge how well all of the students comprehend the lecture or the readings. The dynamics are completely different when an entire class responds, as opposed to an individual. Immediately, every student feels some ownership in the problem and its solution, an important aspect to the learning process that increases accountability towards comprehension. When the answers or replies are anonymous, students feel more comfortable participating. And, equally important, the instructor can better gauge students’ mastery of the materials outside of exams or other work, which can inform what to address in that particular class or the next.

Some instructors have taken the polling process to a more advanced level by incorporating it into the entire class dynamic. As an example, Eric Mazur, PhD, a Harvard professor of physics, teaches with a method that he calls Peer Instruction and insists that students appreciate this learning process and that they engage more deeply with the topics. Dr. Mazur uses polling to introduce a problem, then, without revealing the answer, has the students discuss amongst each other the correct answer. Rather than describe in more detail his approach, I recommend that you watch the following presentation by Dr. Mazur. (It starts around 35 minutes into his talk).

There are a variety of resources used for polling. In a future post, I will discuss a number of these options.




1. Vogel, S., Schwabe, L. (2016) Learning and memory under stress: implications for the classroom. Nature Partner Journals: Science of Learning. Nature.com. Published online: June 28, 2016 at http://www.nature.com/articles/npjscilearn201611

Submitted by Tim Hickey, Computer Science Department


Over the past two years I have been formally experimenting with the use of technology in my classroom and I’ve come to a number of realizations which I would like to share in this essay.  

The first, perhaps not surprising, realization is that technology itself offers no additional benefit to teaching unless it changes the pedagogy in some meaningful way.  At first I hypothesized that the mere use of technology might serve to enthuse students and keep them more engaged, but an experiment I carried out in Fall 2014 suggested this is not the case. Some of my colleagues had the opposite intuition, they felt that requiring students to use computers in class would not improve their learning. In fact, they felt it would be a disaster with students getting distracted – shopping on Ebay, browsing Facebook, etc. I decided to test these hypotheses about the effects of requiring or banning computers by designing and carrying out an experiment with my own class.  

Since this experiment involved human subjects (my students) and was designed to produce generalizable knowledge about the effects of technology on learning, I was required to get permission from the Institutional Review Board by filling out an IRB form describing the experiment, the risks, the related literature, the protocol, etc.  This was a bit daunting the first time, but wasn’t really that formidable a task.  If anyone else wants to try it, you can get support from the Center for Teaching and Learning which has copies of several successful IRB proposals and I would be happy to guide you through the process.  

I was teaching two large sections of Introduction to Programming in Java (CS11a) in Fall 2014 and I had decided to flip the classroom.  Class time would be involved mostly with activities that required every student to think about the concepts we were covering and to practice the skills they were developing.  There was some lecturing, but this was kept to a minimum.  We made extensive use of two web-based applications created by my graduate students:

  • TeachBack: an Audience Response System created by William Tarimo with several experimental features that we were testing, and
  • Spinoza: an online programming environment created by Fatima Abu Deeb which was designed to support in-class coding exercises.

Both of these supported an active learning paradigm to help students learn to program by solving problems individually or in small groups. There is a commercial product (Learning Catalytics) which is similar to TeachBack, but I was doing research on Educational Technology so we chose to use our home grown system.

I designed the course to have four units, each concluding with a summative exam. Each section had exactly the same readings, assignments, exams, and lecture plans but I decided to ban computers in unit 3 for section 1 to see the effect, and then, for symmetry and fairness, I banned computers in unit 4 for section 2.  Units 1 and 2 both used the technology extensively and students became used to working with these tools.  The IRB approved my experimental design.

Even when computers were banned, I used the same active learning pedagogy. Both sections were given programming problems to work on using a very effective and well-known collaborative learning activity called Think/Pair/Share (TPS). The instructions for this TPS activity were to have students work individually to try to write a program to solve a particular problem.  After a few minutes, I asked them to talk to their neighbors about their solutions and help each other debug. After a few more minutes I would select a few individuals and share their solutions with the class.  This activity is easy to add to any class and has been shown in numerous studies to help students gain a deeper understanding of the material than they would by just listening to a lecture and taking notes.  

In the computer-free section, students had to write their code on paper with pen or pencil, while in the computer-required section they interacted with a code editor and compiler developed by my graduate student and this experience was closer to the skills I was trying to teach as they would be using a real system.  When we shared a particular student’s solution with the class in the computer-free section, they had to tell me what to type on the screen so everyone could see it, rather than just letting me click on their name in the online version which popped up their code. In the computer-free section, I would ask them to think about questions and then would have them raise hands rather than having them all answer the question using the online TeachBack system. I was confident that students would learn more in the computer-required section because it held them more accountable for being engaged and gave them a more genuine experience of problem solving with a computer.

We measured the effect of requiring or banning computers by looking at grades on the unit tests and results of student surveys (all approved by the Institutional Review Board!).  It surprised us that there was no statistical difference between the two classes on any of the measures we examined, except that many students said they preferred using their computers in class.  The good news is that my colleagues fear that students would be distracted was unfounded. The active learning kept them too busy to spend much time on Ebay or Facebook!  We published a paper showing that requiring computers in class “does no harm,” at least for this class.

Interestingly, most students objected vociferously when I banned computers from their section. A  few, though, were relieved because they found they were easily distracted by their laptops.  Some students felt so strongly they surreptitiously switched sections, or they would go home and watch the screen-recorded lectures with their computers open! The lesson here is that in a large class, there is no one-size-fits-all pedagogy that will work well for all students.

More recently I’ve been exploring how I could have used the technology in that class to actually improve student learning by rapidly identifying students at risk of doing poorly.  The idea was to use the information collected from the students online interactions to help identify students that were struggling on the concepts and skills covered that day. Our initial studies suggest that this may be feasible and would help us implement a proactive form of advising where we can give detailed daily feedback to students about what they need to study and how they can get help to master those concepts or skills.

I’ve now adopted the “flipped classroom” model in all of my classes to some extent. The key idea behind flipping a classroom is to introduce students to the content before class, and give them practice working with the concepts and skills in class.  One tool that has revolutionized the way I approach pre-class assignments is the free and open source Nota Bene system from MIT (http://nb.mit.edu). This website allows you to upload pdfs for students to read and study.  The students login to the system and jointly annotate the pdf.  They can make observations, ask questions, answer questions, have discussions and all of this happens before class has started.  By scanning their comments before class I have a very good idea of which topics need more coverage and which they seem to have mastered!

I’ve learned that one does need to spend some time in class talking about how to ask a good question. One easy suggestion is that if a student has a question that they could answer using a quick google search, then they should make that search and upload their answer as a comment, rather than just adding a question. Requiring students to make five good comments or questions the night before the next class is enough to stimulate a flurry of intellectual activity while students are reading the text at home.  By perusing the students interactions with the text the next morning, I can decide which skills and concepts the students need to focus on in class that day and which they have mostly mastered. This is an example of a technique called “Just in time Teaching” where the classroom activity is determined at the last minute after looking at the students’ responses to the required reading.  For those who use copyrighted materials for class, you can use the Perusall system which will negotiate the copyrights for your class (for a fee) .

In the flipped classes I teach, I set explicit learning goals for each day and develop activities to engage them with those skills and concepts.  To assess their developing mastery, I use the TeachBack system to assess how well students are learning those concepts and skills.  There are other commercial systems such as LearningCatalytics that offer features similar to TeachBack (again, for a fee!). I also use Computer Science specific tools such as Spinoza and similar interactive tools that aren’t useful in other departments.

A third type of technology that I’ve been using recently in all my large classes is the Echo360 screen recording and live streaming system installed in half a dozen of our large classrooms. LTS will set it up for you at your request and it will automatically screen record your class and simultaneously live stream it to any Brandeis students who want to join remotely. In the Computer Graphics class I taught in Fall 2015, I introduced live streaming half way through the course and told students they could attend class remotely through live streaming as long as they also fully participated in class using the TeachBack system — answering questions I posed, asking questions of the TA using the forum during class, working on Think/Pair/Share problems with other students using TeachBack, etc.  We found 75% of the class tried live streaming at least once, and every day about a fifth of the class was live streaming (though it was a different group of students each day). Most students preferred being physically present in class but most thought livestreaming should be an option for all classes at Brandeis.  It allowed them to attend class if they were sick, or overslept, or were traveling for personal or sports reasons. The newest version of echo360 has some of the audience response system features of TeachBack built in and this should make it even easier for faculty to experiment with allowing students to live-stream their flipped classes.

The overall lesson I’ve learned in the past two years is that technology, if properly used, can support a more active and flexible teaching style that helps me reach more of my students, especially in large classes. I’ve also discovered that I can apply the scientific method to test hypotheses I might have about ways to improve my teaching.  It’s sobering when I discover that a hypothesis I had about my teaching is wrong, but it is also exciting to start using evidence-based methods to guide and improve my teaching.  I would encourage you to try some of these tools and to assess their effect (perhaps using an anonymous survey).  Who knows, you might discover something about the effectiveness of your pedaogical explorations that surprises you!

Submitted by Carol Damm, MEd, Instructional Designer


Recently, I read an article[i], published on a California PBS website, proposing the use of the podcast, Serial, as course material. The writer, John Walter, described how he used this episodic medium in his journalism class. Serial is a logical choice as course material for his class because it required investigative reporting as well as presented excellent storytelling, i.e. writing and production, skills.  However, for me as an instructional designer, it was the ancillary reasons for using a podcast that piqued my interest in the article: it engaged the students through technology media—mp3 players or computers—which they enjoy using, and captivated their attention with a story that involved characters to whom they could relate.

When students fully engage with material, they begin to take ownership of their own learning. As Walter described, students in his class put in more hours than required for the course work and became passionate about the story and the individuals involved in the drama. Would they have done so if they were to read the episodes in black and white on paper? Perhaps a few students might but most would, more than likely, not. Serial is so effective because it incorporates different voices through interviews and creates drama with strategic pauses and episodic music. It transcends the written word. And, of course, this is the power of audio and video course material.

Podcasts, in particular, have the added attraction of being a new medium for many, if not most, students. According to the Pew Research Center on Journalism and Media, “as of 2016, 21% of Americans age 12 or older say they have listened to a podcast in the past month.”[ii] Where online videos and photos are readily shared through the social media that are popular with college-aged students, podcasts and other audio stories and reporting are seldom shared. This suggests that the materials will be unfamiliar to students and will engage as a novel approach to learning.

Podcasts address many topics that are relevant to educators. For current events and topics, radio programs produced by NPR, PRI, and others address topical issues in politics, sociology, science, literature, the arts, and so on. These are often shorter recordings, especially if they are news reports, but some programs like This American LifeOn Being, and Science Friday (and many others) may focus on a particular topic for a half hour or more. TED Radio Hour covers a topic each week by interviewing speakers and presenting portions of their TED Talk.  The TED Talk videos also offer high-quality material for educators. Then there are topical podcasts that you can find on aggregator sites, called podcatchers, like iTunes and Listenwise (focused on K-12 educators). Wikipedia offers a “List of Podcatchers”. You can usually search in any of the aggregators by typing in keywords for your topic or you can choose to browse by topic. You can also search the internet by typing in “podcast” and any other keywords that help drill down to a particular topic.

Ideally, you are looking for podcasts that are free and/or embeddable. The most efficient method to offer a podcast is by embedding it on LATTE through the Label or Page resource. If the podcast is free or if you pay a minimal amount to download it, you can also upload it to LATTE. However, it is preferable to stream a podcast that is embedded because videos or podcasts may not play well on LATTE as the ability to process the files for playing is dependent on the file size. A large file, uploaded to a LATTE course site, may seize and not play because it requires more processing power than is available at the moment. The other advantage to making a podcast available through LATTE is that you do not need to worry about students’ personal devices—whether PCs, smartphones, or tablets—that may or may not be compatible with the source of the podcast.


[i] Walter, J. (Aug 30 2016). Employing the ‘Serial’ podcast as a primary text. KQED Education: In the Classroom. https://ww2.kqed.org/education/2016/08/30/employing-the-serial-podcast-as-a-primary-text/

[ii] Vogt, N. (Jun 15 2016). Podcasting: Fact sheet. Pew Research Center, Journalism & Media: State of the News Media 2016. http://www.journalism.org/2016/06/15/podcasting-fact-sheet/