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Sustainability and success: Teaching with technology

November 07, 2013

Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability faculty is integrating technology to deliver real-world experiences to their students.

Such classes as Sustainability Leadership and Social Change, Sustainable Cities, Sustainable Urbanism and International Development and Sustainability allow faculty to engage with students, colleagues and international partners through technology.

“Technology can bring the class to the outside world, instead of taking the outside world to the class,” says David Manuel-Navarrete, an assistant professor in the School of Sustainability and a senior sustainability scientist in ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability. “The balance of power within the class is altered; the instructor is no longer a purveyor of information, and the students are not just the consumers of the information. Instead, it becomes a process of co-production.”

Types of technology

Faculty from the school and throughout ASU receive positive feedback from students about their innovative, interactive approach to teaching, including some of the following examples:

VoiceThread: a free cloud application that allows professors to upload lessons and documents to discuss with students via microphone, webcam, text, phone or audio.

Skype: an often-free way to chat with international students via phone or video call. One sustainability professor conducted lectures and discussions with Delhi students, projected on large screens.

Vidyo: a software-based video conferencing tool that can run on existing hardware. Not only do professors use it in class, this environmentally friendly option also enables them to connect remotely with colleagues, saving time and gas.

Blackboard: a web-based tool used by many ASU professors for online and hybrid courses. It provides discussion boards, calendars, quizzes and tracks student progress.

Think before you leap

Trying one or more of these technologies can be daunting at first. But taking it one step at a time and establishing a back-up plan makes the process an easier, more successful transition.

“Use technology in a meaningful way – be conscious and clear when choosing the types of technology,” says Arnim Wiek, a senior sustainability scientist in ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability and an associate professor in the School of Sustainability. He is simultaneously teaching ASU and German students using technology. “We shape the technology. In an educational setting, ask yourself, ‘Why would I use this technology?’”

Dan Childers, also a senior sustainability scientist and professor, collaborated with Kurt VanLehn from the School of Computing, Informatics, and Decision Systems Engineering to use a modeling software called Dragoon to effectively teach fundamental ecosystem concepts. Childers says there is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to using technology to educate.

“I think we should not be afraid of technology,” he says. “Students tend to be more keen on and capable of using it. There is no common solution that could or should be implemented in each pedagogical situation.”

Partner with students

Sometimes, even including students in the decision-making can lead professors to the right type of technology. Jason Kelley, a lecturer in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, implemented VoiceThread in his courses to introduce lectures and discussion topics. He then asked the students to evaluate the software at the end of the semester.

“Don’t be afraid to try out new things,” he says. “Experiment with the students; tell them that you’re going to try a new tool, and that you want their candid open feedback.”

Oftentimes, using technology in the classroom or online can mean more time and work, but positive, impactful learning outcomes make up for it. In Rimjhim Aggarwal’s Sustainable Development in Action course, students from ASU and Delhi filmed their own short documentaries exploring urban environmental justice issues in their respective communities. Then, the videos were shared with each set of students and discussed over Skype.

“Rather than exploring culture through abstract terms, the students could observe culture through the lives of people,” says Aggarwal, a senior sustainability scientist and an associate professor in the School of Sustainability.

Have fun while learning

Sander van der Leeuw, former dean of the School of Sustainability and United Nations Champion of the Earth, says technology can make education more enjoyable.

“Please experiment with all of these technologies,” he says. “Because after all, not only is technology efficient, but also a lot of fun.”