Depending on whom you ask, the introduction of technology into the classroom is either a blessing or a curse. The proliferation of technology has provoked some good discussions, in addition to expletives involving use (abuse?) of Powerpoint slides in lecture. For one senior (non-UNH) colleague, who shall remain nameless, the mere mention of the word “Powerpoint” is akin to a bell ring for Pavlov’s dog, though with incarnadine face and froth at the mouth the outcome rather than drooling.
Powerpoint pique aside, those interested in the pedagogical consequences of technology use in the classroom have asked questions such as, how much technology is appropriate? Are all mediums appropriate in all disciplines? What about humanities disciplines like history that, until the evolution of digital humanities tended not to incorporate technology.
A judicious and thoughtful use of technology can certainly enhance teaching. For history, I have found Skype to be a versatile pedagogical tool. I have used it to connect students with an author, much as Michael Creswell suggested in his 2011 essay for the Perspectives. As part of their reading assignment, I required them to come up with 2-3 thoughtful questions for the author. For the most part, the students had been good that semester about completing their reading, but from the questions they produced, knowing that they would interact with the author, the students were quite motivated and got a lot out of this Skype session. The students got more out of the book that I have seen of seminar-style discussions, and the author signed off, knowing that a group of students appreciated her book.
In my public history courses, I use Skype to connect my students with professionals in material culture, archives, and digital history. As with the discussions with the author, they are required to come up with 2-3 good questions. I typically have our guest start with a brief overview of their background and how they got their current position. My aim for this exercise is to help undergraduate students to better understand these professions, and to provide a networking opportunity. Internships and interaction with current professionals in the field can go a long way to helping socialize students to potential careers.
And finally, I sometimes use Skype to bring in public speakers and experts that will enhance their understanding of a topic beyond what I can provide. In my Politics and Religion in American History course, for instance, I Skyped in an African-American Imam who could articulate not only the appeal of Islam to African-Americans during the Civil Rights era, but also help them to understand the factions among African Americans who chose to embrace Islam. Similarly, today, he will help me to discuss Islam in the African diaspora during my African History course.
When used thoughtfully, Skype can expand the classroom. In the age of shrinking speaker, travel budgets, and busy schedules, it can be used to provide students with learning opportunities that they might not otherwise have. Certainly, Google chat (which I’ve also used) is an alternative to Skype, and one that more readily allows the patching in of multiple speakers, and even the ability of speakers to go between themselves and visual aids as they “visit” and interact with students.
All instances of Skyping in guest speakers have been well received by the students. Perhaps there are other good applications, beyond what I have tried in my own classrooms. What have you tried?
 Michael H. Creswell, “Using Skype in the Classroom to Connect Students with Authors,” Perspectives on History (April 2011).