Three Ways to Teach Students Technology Skills

This student at the University of Houston is learning by using high tech equipment at the library -- the video casette recorder.

This student at the University of Houston’s M. D. Anderson Library is learning by using the library’s high tech equipment — a video casette player. She looks like she knows what she’s doing, but how do we teach students these kinds of technical skills?

One of the things I took for granted when I first started teaching was that if I knew how to do something with a computer, my students would too. I soon realized that this was not necessarily the case.

Having to teach students how to do things with their computers that we ourselves have only just learned or are experimenting with is one of the challenges to using technology in the classroom.  In fact, I would guess that this is a major reason why more faculty don’t use Web-based assignments, blogs, wikis, etc., in their classes. I know that when thinking through a course, and during the course, the last thing that I wanted to be doing was troubleshoot student technology issues.

We’re trained in the research and teaching in particular fields, not necessarily in technology skills that we may want to impart to our students, either because we think students could benefit from them in a profession later on, or simply because if they learn those skills we’ll be able to teach more effectively.  That said, I’ve put together three ways that I find helpful in alleviating the burden of teaching students how to do technology stuff.

Create a Tutorial for Your Students

Here's an image of a tutorial with screenshots that Evan wrote for this blog on creating a blog post in WordPress.

Here’s an image of a tutorial with screenshots that Evan wrote for this blog on creating a blog post in WordPress. Check out the post for an example of a straightforward tutorial with screenshots. Keeping frequently-used tutorials on a course website (like one created in WordPress) is an easy way to collect such resources for students semester-to-semester.

With screenshots or a screencast, you can quickly let students know the stimulating “where to click” information that is easy to do, but not always obvious how to do it.  Screenshots can be really helpful to show someone what their screen should look like in a tutorial, or if troubleshooting a student problem, you can ask them to send you an image of their screen to see what the problem is.

With a screencast, which is a video created from the image of a computer screen, usually with narration, you can show students exactly where they’re supposed to click, and what the screen is supposed to look like.  Narrating the video lets you explain what it is that you’re doing as you’re doing it. This is much faster than typing out instructions — it takes way less time to create a 30-second video for a student than writing out a tutorial and illustrating it with screen captures.  Then you post your video up on your course’s Blackboard site or on YouTube and direct students there when you get questions.

The downside of creating your own tutorials is that it is likely that in a couple of years your tutorial may be inaccurate because of software updates, etc.  So, you’d have to rewrite and re-create your tutorials as needed.  Annoying if you do a typed tutorial with screenshots, much less annoying if you do a screencast.

I’ve heard good things about Screencast-O-Matic as an application for making screencasts. Karen Conner, over at the W&M Mason School of Business has put together a great overview for using this application.

Sharing Already-Existing Tutorials

Here's an example of how I put a Blackboard tutorial video right inside the "Assignments" page of my Blackboard site. It seems to cut down on student questions.

Here’s an example of how I put a Blackboard tutorial video right inside the “Assignments” page of my Blackboard site. It seems to reduce the number of questions I get about how to submit assignments on Blackboard.

At W&M, the good folks at Academic Technology have kindly created tutorials for various tasks using wikis, blogs, and Blackboard. There are also lots of tutorials available elsewhere on the Web. This means that if you know students are going to have a question about something, you can preemptively make the URL of such a tutorial available. Knowing about these resources can help you feel more confident about, for example, assigning a blog in your class and let you focus on students’ work rather than the technical details of them using WordPress.

One example from my own teaching: I had students submit assignments via Blackboard. This isn’t difficult to do, but I’ve had students who had never used Blackboard before or hadn’t used it to hand in an assignment before. I’ve also found that when it comes to handing in assignments, students are often nervous about whether or not you actually got their paper.  The fears of all their hard work disappearing into some electronic void between your computers are assuaged by showing them what it looks like when they’ve successfully submitted a paper.  I was able to put the video of how to submit an assignment right up on the page of the course’s Blackboard site where I had created the assignments.  That way, when they’d go to hand in their assignment, instead of sending me or a classmate a panicked email, they could watch the video and learn how to do it.

In-Class Demos with Students Doing the Task

One method that I’ve used that I really liked was to have students bring their laptops to class (W&M students are required to own laptops), and walk them through doing the technology task with them in class.  If they do it themselves, they’re much more likely to remember how to do it later on.  That way also, you know that students can help each other, and ask each other outside of class how to do something.  This method works best for something slightly more in depth than handing in a Blackboard assignment — say, navigating around a wiki and editing a page on it.

When I used a wiki for the first time in a class, I set aside 15 minutes of a class near the beginning of the semester to teach them how to use the wiki. I timed this to occur a few days before their first wiki assignment was due. I showed them this video explaining what a wiki is from Common Craft (they have a lot of useful videos — I also see one on blogs up there as well) to help them understand why creating a wiki would make sense for the class project they would be completing over the course of the semester.

Then I had them get their laptops out and walked them through how to create and edit a page in our wiki while projecting my computer’s display on the big screen in the classroom.  I then gave students a few minutes to create the page they would need to hand in their assignment and mess around with the wiki a bit.  Then I could walk around the class and see if there were questions, and they could help each other as well.

I hope that these suggestions for teaching students is helpful — and do share in the comments if you have tips or techniques that you’ve found useful!

About Kim Mann

Kim Mann is the editor and a writer for the Academic Technology Blog. She earned her BA in English from the University of Minnesota in 2003 and her MA in American Studies from William & Mary in 2009, and her PhD in American Studies at the College in 2014. Her research is on technology, the interface, and the body in mid-twentieth century science fiction.