Implementing Technology in College Classrooms

When Dr. Kaston Anderson-Carpenter steps in front of his psychology class at Michigan State University, he sees 175 students interacting with laptops, tablets and smartphones in a carefully constructed academic environment.

Gen Z students fill his classroom, a digital generation of non-traditional students who rely on technology to do research, access their textbooks, complete their homework and communicate with their peers and instructors.

Dr. Anderson-Carpenter’s classroom is not unusual for instructors teaching in the 21st century. Students are no longer thriving in traditional classes, which expect them to absorb information through lectures. Instead, studies show that teaching trends are moving toward app-based learning, microlearning and mobile learning. These types of learning models give students ownership of their education and allow them to consume information familiarly. A study from Barnes and Noble College shows that Gen Z students expect digital learning tools to be utilized on-demand with low barriers to access, to create interactive learning environments. Since this new generation of students expects classrooms to use digital learning tools, instructors need to consider ways of implementing technology that will not only intrigue students but bring value to their education.

Focused young African female college student working on a laptop on some stairs on campus preparing for an exam

How Technology Can Support Learning Outcomes

According to a study from Youngstown State University, “technology has become a popular tool that some believe will further engage students in learning and therefore increase student achievement.” Many universities already use core technology tools on campus, such as learning management systems, online discussion boards and interactive student-response systems (commonly called “clickers”).

However, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to implementing technology. And taking time to understand technology options and restructure a course can feel like a significant administrative burden. For some instructors, such as Dr. Gary Sailes of Indiana University Bloomington, the idea of efficiently implementing technology feels overwhelming. “I don’t use social media, electronic media, digital technology and all that stuff,” says Dr. Sailes. “I am kind of old school pencil and paper guy, [but] I am trying to make the transition into the 21st century, become more digital.”

Teaching for nearly 30 years, Dr. Sailes has witnessed an evolution in the way his students learn. In the 1980s, schools began integrating computers. Since then, laptops and handheld devices have become a staple of almost every classroom. The evolution of technology has been rapid in the last few years and doesn’t appear to be slowing down. Instead of avoiding or banning technology in the classroom, Dr. Sailes decided to embrace it. He uses technology as a tool to enhance the value of students’ learning and to keep students engaged.

In just a few semesters, Dr. Sailes has been able to use features from his Learning Management System successfully and implemented the online discussion platform Packback. He’s since seen an increase in student engagement. He’s also been impressed with how students are using technology to study and share information with their peers. 

Types of Technology

Here are a few simple technologies for instructors to create a better learning environment for students, without overhauling their course structure and syllabus.

Learning Management Systems

Many universities and colleges have implemented learning management systems (LMS). These web-based applications assist instructors in delivering content online and managing their courses. Many LMSs come with a variety of features such as grade books, discussion boards and attendance tracking. Some common LMS include Moodle, Blackboard and Canvas.

Online Discussion Boards

Online discussions are an excellent way for students to explore course content and participate in peer-to-peer learning. Many LMSs come with an online discussion feature, but may be limited in design and functionality. An alternative to an LMS discussion board is Packback Questions. Packback is an online discussion tool that requires students to ask open-ended questions and uses artificial intelligence to moderate posts and provide real-time feedback to students. 


Student-response systems, also commonly referred to as clickers, help instructors to collect student responses quickly. With clickers, professors can pose a question to their entire class and have students submit answers. The responses are then displayed on a graph and can be presented to the class. It’s a great way to start discussions in large lectures and allow every student to share their responses. Tophat also has an app that will enable students to use their phones and tablets to submit answers instead of purchasing a separate clicker device. 

Video Conferencing

Recordings and live streaming allow lectures to be more accessible to students. They also allow instructors to create a classroom-like environment for online classes. Dr. Mark Reisinger from Binghamton University records his lectures and posts the recordings on his school’s LMS. This way, students can keep up with class even when they can’t physically attend. Some popular video conferencing tools include Pligus, Skype, Google Hangout and

Virtual Reality

Bringing in virtual reality tools has become increasingly popular among medical students. Virtual reality tools allow medical students to practice complex techniques in a safe environment. One tool gaining traction is Anatomage Table, which is a visualization system for anatomy education. Other VR platforms, such as Engage, allow instructors to hold classes and presentations with immersive elements such as virtual objects and environments.

Things to Consider

Bringing new technology into the classroom can make it easier for instructors to achieve learning objectives. When implementing new technology, take time to update the course syllabus to help students understand the purpose of the technology or assignment. Once students understand the purpose, they’re more likely to apply themselves and will have a more positive learning experience.

EdTech is not a one-size-fits-all solution

Not all classes lend themselves to every type of EdTech tool. It’s essential to find tools that will enhance aspects of the course that are already in place. Identify an area of class that could use improvement, such as increased engagement, and make an actionable plan for how a specific tool will enrich the classroom.

Successfully implementing EdTech tools takes time

There’s a learning curve with everything, so don’t be frustrated if the first attempt at implementing technology doesn’t run flawlessly. The good news is, EdTech companies often have customer service reps on-hand to answer questions and provide suggestions. There are even EdTech companies that make it their mission to help instructors with everything from implementation to technical support. Packback, for example, sets each one of their professors up with an “online TA” who is available, not only during the implementation process but throughout the entire term.

Interested in learning more about how EdTech tools can increase student engagement and critical thinking in college students? Check out this video from Dr. Kathleen West on how online discussions encouraged her students to care more about course content.

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