For the first time in several years I have added two technological tools that so far are benefiting my teaching.

The first, and simpler one to discuss is plickers. It’s a polling system. I love polling. Two days ago I polled my Abrahamic Traditions class on the question “Should we be tolerant of all religious beliefs?” Today I asked my ethics class a variant on the Buridan’s ass paradox.

For the last seven years or so, I have been laminating 3 x 5 index cards and handing out them and whiteboard markers. Kids would register their votes on the cards, and a student would gather the cards, tally the results and another student would write them on the board. I’ve been looking at clicker systems, but they are designed for larger classrooms and are expensive. We don’t allow students to carry cell phones around school, so voting by text like pollanywhere doesn’t work for me. Plickers are just the right combination of low and high tech for my situation. I downloaded an app onto my smartphone, and printed out a set of cards with computer readable symbols on them. When I want them to vote I pass out the cards (I laminated them). I go around the table scanning the students’ cards and depending on how the student holds the card, the system will register one of four vote choices. The vote is tallied automatically and represented on a private webpage as a bar graph. It’s not as fast as a clicker system or pollanywhere, but it is faster than writing, handing in and counting, it is free, and it works without kids needing to have their phones with them. So far it is a useful addition to my classroom, speeding things up a bit.

A plicker card - "A" side up to vote "A", etc.

A plicker card – “A” side up to vote “A”, etc.

The second, much larger change is a learning management system, in this case Canvas. I’d been messing with LMS options for years, and never quite getting over the hurdle to actually use one. Last spring I used Canvas for paper grading, and this year I put two of my three courses completely online. Grading papers is faster – I used to have kids email me their papers, but now when the students upload their papers to Canvas I can move from one to the next in the same window, and I don’t need to download, reupload, and send an email back. It also records the grade in a gradebook. Similarly with short written responses to readings – no hassles collecting them, I can quickly glance through them and give them a small grade (0 for not handed in, 1 for lame, 2 for complete – thanks to my colleague Nate Crimmins for the simple update to check, check plus, check minus!) I have also put video links in their syllabus, links to electronic versions of their readings, etc. Finally (for me at the moment – I know it includes a lot more tools) it is automatically capturing a portfolio of each student’s work.

It has been a great start to the year, and these tools are helping.