How Professors Can Bolster Inquiry in College Using K-12 Tech Tricks

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Koltun-Fromm's students used Prezi to explore non-linear connections between class texts. (Courtesy Ken Koltun-Fromm)
Koltun-Fromm's students used Prezi to explore non-linear connections between class texts. (Courtesy Ken Koltun-Fromm)

Coverage of technology in higher education often stops at whether Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) can be an effective way to educate hundreds of thousands of students cheaply, or focuses on the newest app to help students track their classes and homework. Much of the technology marketed to universities targets administrative tasks, things like registering students or sites like Blackboard and Moodle that make it easy for students to check assignments and download readings. But especially in a seminar setting, some professors are using technology in ways that mirror some of the forward-thinking practices of K-12 teachers who are known for applying inquiry-based methods, accessing low-cost technology that's easy to use and making the subject relevant to students' lives.


Ken Koltun-Fromm is a religion professor at Haverford College, a small liberal arts college outside of Philadelphia (full disclosure: I attended Haverford, although I wasn’t a religion major and didn’t know Professor Koltun-Fromm as a student). He’s been experimenting with various ways to bring technology into his teaching when he thinks it could enhance the classroom experience.

When planning a course on modern Jewish thought, he wanted to capture the notion that this subject area is alive and still being developed, so he contacted colleagues in the field from universities around the country and asked them about their own research and writing. Each week he assigned his students to read a primary religious text recommend by the colleague, along with his or her analysis of that primary text. He then Skyped those colleagues into class to discuss their writings with his students.

“It was a way of opening up by bringing into the classroom modern Jewish thinkers who are engaged in modern Jewish thought,” Koltun-Fromm said. Students wrote their final papers about those same scholars' work, which Koltun-Fromm sent to his colleagues. He then brought them to Haverford’s campus for a symposium and organized a breakfast where students could meet and discuss their final papers directly with the authors of the texts they’d investigated.


Koltun-Fromm paid for the symposium with a grant from the college’s Hurford Humanities Center, one of the many luxuries of a small private college, but everything else about the course design used very simple technology. The focus was on how technology could enhance human contact.


It may sound like Koltun-Fromm is a technology evangelist, but in fact, he has strict rules about the kinds of technology his students can use in class. He doesn’t allow them to bring laptops to take notes because he knows all too often they are checking email, browsing the internet or distancing themselves from the discussion in other ways. He’s much more interested in how technology can bring people together.

Koltun-Fromm received a small Teaching with Technology grant from the college to buy three iPads for a class he was teaching on visual and material culture. In one class session he asked students to find representations of Jewish imagery and screencast them for the whole class to see. “I wanted to think about what it would be like to have public technology, so you couldn’t hide, you had to share,” Koltun-Fromm said.

While discussing the images students found, Koltun-Fromm realized many students had no idea where their images had come from, which led to an interesting discussion about Google search and images within context. In fact, using Google helped students understand the reading they had been assigned for that class, David Morgan’s “The Sacred Gaze: Religious Visual Culture in Theory and Practice.”

“We realized that this methodological discussion we were having didn’t apply to Google images,” Koltun-Fromm said. Google flashes images at a user and there’s no time to engage in the kind of “seeing” the theorist described. The technology actually helped students understand the core concepts better, which gets to Koltun-Fromm’s basic framework for using these tools: “use technology as a mode of inquiry and as an object of inquiry,” he said.


Koltun-Fromm has also experimented with asking students to post reactions to readings online that can then be brought back into class discussions. At first he tried to use the blog function on Moodle for this part of the class, but he quickly found that students associated Moodle with accessing and downloading assigned reading, not as a creative space. So Koltun-Fromm created another site with a layout that more resembled Twitter. His students were much more able to respond quickly and creatively on the new platform.

Asking students to respond to readings before class gave Koltun-Fromm an important window into what students were thinking. “Students who are shier sometimes use these blogs to articulate their voice,” Koltun-Fromm said. After reading their arguments he could draw quieter students into the conversation by validating their ideas and teasing them out more. The technology helped expand class discussion and include more students. This approach can also work in K-12 schools.

Another time, Koltun-Fromm wanted to help his students make connections between texts they were reading without relying on the linear format of a class syllabus, which usually proceeds week by week. Instead, Koltun-Fromm had students use Prezi, an online presentation tool that lends itself well to visualizing connections. Students demonstrated their visual literacy skills by making connections across texts, images and other assignments. It was a relatively simple way to get them thinking about how various texts speak to one another, no matter what form they're in.


Professors of large survey courses are increasingly flipping their classrooms, putting the lectures online and using class time for questions or experiments. But Koltun-Fromm isn’t interested in that use of technology because he says it doesn’t change the fundamental assumption that the professor is the sole force of authority.

“Part of using the iPads in the classroom was to democratize the learning, to make the learning more active,” Koltun-Fromm said. By allowing students to find and project images they believed fit into the discussion, they each played a more constructivist role in facilitating class, allowing Koltun-Fromm to react to individuals and their ideas. He’s intentionally trying to subtly undermine his own authority, knowing full well that his students know who ultimately gives them grades. He finds the approach lets students take more control over the experience without affecting their respect for him.


In many ways Koltun-Fromm’s forays into using technology in his classroom are very simple: Skype, screencasting, Prezi, and online blogging don’t require extensive equipment or software, but they can enhance learning when used judiciously. The principle of using technology when it is appropriate and leaving it to the side when it doesn't help fits the mentality of many teachers at all levels and disciplines. While small Haverford classes do not typify the large university experience, there are many ways professors could allow technology to influence their teachingto move more nimbly within institutions of higher education.