Technology and Teaching

In Spring 1986, I began teaching college classes—so this year marks my 25th anniversary as a college instructor (although I have not taught 25 consecutive years).  One thing I have noticed over this time is how much technology has changed, especially in the college classroom.  Back then, technology was a 16mm film projector to show films/documentaries, an overhead projector, and a carousel slide projector.  All boards were chalkboards.  Dramatic changes have even occurred since I arrived at Mansfield; during my first semester, I taught in a classroom that did not even have an overhead projector nor a VCR or TV/monitor, but it did have an opaque projector and a baby grand piano (I could have taught history like Mark Russell if I had wanted—but I know my teaching evaluations would have suffered if I had tried to sing).  Now, I teach in a classroom that has a whiteboard, projector, DVD player, VCR, computer, and the capability of playing sound clips embedded into PowerPoint slides.  This means that what I will be doing this Friday (it was supposed to be on Wednesday, but Mother Nature intervened) will be something I could never have envisioned when I first taught American History since 1865 at the Berks Campus of Penn State.

A little bit of background:  In some ways, some of my class lectures (or at least the lecture notes) are remarkably similar to the ones I delivered in 1986.  They aren’t identical; those were handwritten, and the ones I use now are typed.  But the content (and delivery method) had not appreciably changed.  So, last fall, as I was thinking about what I wanted to do in the U.S. history survey class this spring, I decided that some of the lectures would be revamped (I’m not crazy; I wasn’t about to rewrite thirty lectures over semester break).  One way in which I would be changing the lecture would be to incorporate more primary sources/firsthand accounts into the presentation—in other words, use the words of the people who actually lived during the time period and experienced the history.  For the second half U.S. history survey, oral history would prove to be a good way to do this, especially when I get into the 20th century.  Now, by training I am an early American historian—and, well, we don’t do oral history, as we haven’t really found anyone to talk to who was alive in the 18th century.  So for the early classes—and especially my Pennsylvania history class, which underwent the transformation a few years ago—using printed primary sources to bring the past to life has proven to be quite effective.

The first lecture/presentation that would be revamped would be the one on immigration in the late 19th/early 20th century.  The old version—the one written in 1986–was, to put it mildly, dated.  It mostly consisted of statistics, general themes, origins and destinations of immigrants, etc., but there was no “life” in it.  It’s like I was teaching immigration history without actually including any immigrants.  So—the first step was to find the stories of immigrants and learn about their experiences on the trans-Atlantic crossing, the challenges they faced at Ellis Island, their expectations of life in the United States, etc.  That was the easy part, as I had recently purchased Ellis Island Interviews:  Immigrants Tell Their Stories in Their Own Words by Peter Morton Coan (New York, 1997), and it is a great collection of immigrants’ recollections of their experiences.  I also was able to borrow JoAnn Skov’s photo of the street sign for Hester Street in New York (another thing I am trying to include in the lectures is popular culture, and I will be discussing the movie Hester Street as part of the presentation).  But the highlight of the lecture, as it would turn out, would almost literally fall into my lap in a totally unexpected way. 

More background:  as you can tell from my gravitar on the blog, I am a fan of Charles Shaughnessy—actor, entrepreneur, blogger.  Charlie is the person responsible for me entering the world of blogging, as I started participating in his blog (“Only Connect!”) in late 2009, and I started my own blog partly to express my thoughts (in the hopes that someone would read them) and partly because Charlie had become too busy to blog as often as he had previously.  Anyway, to make a long story short (or, rather, shorter), on January 11, 2011, Laurie Baker’s OutTakes Interviews program on BlogTalkRadio had Charlie as a guest, and I was fortunate enough to be able to call in and talk to him—and ask a question.  My question:  Why did you choose to become a naturalized citizen?  It was something I was interested in (mainly because I teach a course on immigration history, but also because of his blog).  I had no idea at the time if he would answer what could be considered a personal question (although it probably wasn’t as personal as some of the other questions asked during the program), much less how he would answer it.  After playing that portion of the radio program to my mother the next day (hey, Mom—I was on the radio!), she said that Charlie’s comment about why he became a naturalized citizen would be perfect for my lecture.

Now the fun part begins.  How in the world does someone who isn’t exactly the most technologically adept person incorporate a sound clip into a PowerPoint presentation?  Who do I need to contact for permission to do this?  I decided to tackle question #2 first, because if I could not get permission, there was no point in trying to figure out the technology.  As a side note—Facebook has become more than a social network for me; it has also become a place to conduct business (so to speak).  I have negotiated internships, kept in contact with student teachers, and corresponded with a friend about research projects, so the idea of obtaining permissions via Messages on Facebook wasn’t an alien one.  Thus, I sent a PM to Laurie Baker (host of the program) and Charles Shaughnessy (the person who responded to the question), asking their permission to use an audio clip from the program in my class (and providing them a transcription so they were aware of the portion that I wished to include).  At that time, I still hadn’t grasped the possibility of being able to actually have Charlie “speak” in my class—but that soon would become a reality.  Laurie responded right away and consented (and even expressed a hope that I would be able to figure out a way to have Charlie “speak” in my class instead of reading the transcription aloud).  Then, I heard from Charlie through his Facebook Team (aka Team Charlie)—and he agreed to let me “use his voice” in my class. 

After recovering from the initial shock of actually having Charlie agree to it (and knowing that this potentially meant that the students would hear more than my voice in class that day), I then set about trying to figure out the technology.  That’s where Tamela Bastion of MU Campus Technologies came into the picture.  I burned a CD of the radio program, and, using Audacity, we edited the radio program so that the exact sound bite I wanted (me asking Charlie the question and his response) could become a sound clip that I could then embed in a PowerPoint slide.  After we got it to work, I then offered to e-mail the slide with the audio clip to Laurie and Charlie—and Charlie’s Team provided me with the e-mail address to send it to them.  That proved to be a bit of an adventure, since I had created the slide using Office 2010, and they couldn’t open it.  Well, for once my technological ineptness proved to be a virtue, as I forced myself to try to solve the problem—which I finally did when I went to the campus the next day and worked on the PC in my office, which still has a Windows XP operating system (for once, I appreciated the dinosaur in my office).  I then finished the rest of the slide presentation, and I tested it in the classroom where I would be teaching.  It worked—and, other than realizing that I would have to adjust the volume a bit (let’s just say I won’t need it on surround sound), the PowerPoint outline was ready for class.  I then shared the completed PowerPoint with Charlie’s Team for their files and informed them that all but the last slide (the one with the sound clip) would be posted online on Desire2Learn (our course management site) and that the slide with Charlie’s contribution to class would only be presented in class.  It turned out to be quite the experience getting the permissions (actually, it was much easier than I anticipated), and I got the sense that Charlie was happy to help (according to the Team, he said it was “very cool that he is part of a history lesson”).

Update:  Overall, the lecture was a success, as the students seemed to enjoy hearing the “Voices of Ellis Island” that I read, but they especially liked our “guest speaker” today.  Before the audio clip, I asked the class if they had heard of Charlie, in case I needed to provide more biographical information than “Charles Shaughnessy (England)” that was on the slide (all of the quotes included the name of the immigrant and his/her country of origin).  Fortunately, they had–apparently I have an entire class of students who have watched “The Nanny” and were thrilled that Mr. Sheffield was going to talk to them.  I then explained how I knew Charlie, because the tone of his response indicates that he is talking to someone he knows.

As an introduction, I described how I got the quote–asking the question on Laurie Baker’s OutTakes Interviews program on BlogTalkRadio when Charlie was the guest–and, after a slight technical glitch, played the audio clip for the class.  A word of advice for anyone who wants to do this–make sure that the speakers are turned on before you decide to play an audio clip.  The students LOVED hearing Charlie’s thoughts on the topic and laughed when he said Americans drive him crazy.

A final thanks to everyone who helped with this adventure–Tamela from CT, Jo, Laurie, and especially Charlie, all of whom made the immigration lecture both a nerve-wracking and a memorable experience.


About Karen

History Professor. Baseball fan. Author of two books, one of which I force my students to buy and read. You want me on your Trivial Pursuit team.
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29 Responses to Technology and Teaching

  1. Larry Collins says:

    I certainly find it interesting how you compare what the University’s classrooms used to look like compared to what they are now. I always find it interesting to learn about things from the past in our University’s history. Another thing that I wanted to comment on was your notes about the Pennsylvania History class. I really liked how you set the class up. We had texts to read on our own, you lectured and discussed course material, and we also had the chance to go out and do our own research on topics that were specific to our interests. The printed sources that we got to use were very effective. My favorite was the book you had us read about William Penn.

  2. Kate says:

    I really wish I was able to take your Immigration class before I graduated. Like most of your classes, I think I really would have enjoyed it. Sitting here in class, currently, I am really missing your lectures!

    • Karen says:

      You’re reading this while you’re in class? Tsk, tsk. I wish I would have been able to have the revised Immigration lecture last year when you took the US History since 1877 class; I think you would have liked it (even if I don’t have Daniel Radcliffe as the “guest” speaker).

  3. RT44DVC says:

    As one who heard the original interview, I believe your class is in for a treat. I thought Charles gave a wonderful response to your on-air question. I also think it’s really great that it was important to you to update your lectures. I’ve had many professors in the past who where clearly using very old lecture material that wasn’t translating to today’s student very well. It must feel good to have conquered the technological end of the project. That is probably what stops many profs from moving to more current techniques. I hope all goes well and look forward to hearing about the experience.

    • Karen says:

      I remember profs using yellowed lecture notes when I was an undergraduate (and it wasn’t because they were handwritten on yellow legal tablets). I vowed that if I ever became a college professor, I wouldn’t do that; I would update them periodically. One thing that observing student teachers (which is another part of my job) has taught me is that I also need to update my PowerPoint outlines, because they often are a bit sketchy/incomplete. They worked for me, but not for the students. In my Pennsylvania history class, for instance, I have finally inserted maps into the slides so the students don’t have to hear me whine about how it would be nice to live in Colorado or Wyoming when I draw a map of the state on the board (we have the Erie triangle, the arc around northern Delaware, and, of course, the Delaware River as the eastern border).

      The technology part of it–I’m not afraid to fall flat on my face when I try out new stuff in the classroom. If it works, great; if it doesn’t work, I’ll move on–and, in this case, I had a transcription to read if the audio clip had not worked (although I had tested it enough times in that classroom that it should have). But it certainly would not have sounded the same if I had read it instead having Charlie say it.

  4. Jonathan Rothermel says:

    Impressive! Nice work, Karen. You’ll need to share all this at future workshops (technology springboard, university days?).

    • Karen says:

      Don’t hold your breath on that one. Tamela did all the work for editing the clip; I just uploaded it. I’m still not sure how it worked, but I am glad that it did.

      • Tamela says:

        I have you down for Springboard – May 2011. Thanks for the help Jonathan. I appreciate faculty who are eager to try new things. Thanks,

        • Karen says:

          Okay, I’ll think about it–but only if you’ll be there as a co-presenter or provide technical support. Because I still have no clue how this worked, only that it did. I was paying attention when we did the editing and saved it to the USB drive, but actually using Audacity–that was you. And, if you noticed, I didn’t jump up and down and ask to have the program added to my office PC.

  5. I really enjoyed reading your journey through this. I didn’t realize that when you were asking if we could hear your voice that this was what you were asking for. I find myself interested in knowing what Mr. Shaughnessy had to say in response to your question.

    Also, you should really give yourself more credit for your abilities with new gadgetry. We all see you on that blackberry. =)

    • Karen says:

      I don’t wear a watch anymore (it’s too awkward to wear the medic alert bracelet with a watch). I check the Blackberry for the time, since it’s not always easy to see the clock in the back of the room. Although I must admit that I do glance if it starts to vibrate, since I am sort of on call 24/7. But my ability to use the Blackberry is rather limited. I can text, I can check messages, I can make phone calls, and I can respond to PMs on Facebook and e-mail. Beyond that–I’m more Flintstones than Jetsons.

  6. Charlie says:

    Bravo, Karen! I am honored to be part of this bold adventure in Hi-Tech, digital education!! Next stop…guest speakers on Skype!!!

    • Karen says:


      If you’re interested–maybe we can work something out the next time I teach a night class (because I really doubt you would want to do Skype for any class that meets at 8:30 a.m. Eastern time). One of my colleagues has used Skype in his class, so I know it can work here.

      I’ve used online chats for online classes in the past (including a rather successful one in the American Revolution on Film class last summer), so I’m open to learning new things. But I’m so old, I still remember collecting keypunch cards to register for classes and applying for grants to pay for computer time when working on my master’s degree–and I’m still a bit in shock that this worked out so well.

  7. Mary T says:

    I also heard the original interview and can just imagine how riveted your class was to not only hear a familiar voice from a much loved celebrity but to have him actually speak in his own sincere heartfelt (not scripted) words. Great idea to make the class really tune in. Wish some of my profs had been more creative – but college back in the 70’s and then in the early 90’s was still pretty traditional.

    • Karen says:

      I remember the ’70s–those lovely 16mm films were the epitome of high tech back then. By the early ’90s, we were able to use VHS tapes in the classroom. Now–I think I could embed video clips into the PowerPoint, too. But I’m only taking one step at a time.

  8. JoAnn(ZMT) says:

    I’m so glad that it went well!! And of course, after Charlie’s segment, the next highlight was that genius photo of the “Hester Street” sign from Chinatown? Hester St. loses something in the translation when you’re standing next to an Asian market. Hard to picture Gitl and Jake shopping there.

    • Karen says:

      Of course! The next step is to figure out how to embed a video clip from the movie to accompany the photo–and get the appropriate permissions to do that. I could see Jake shopping there with Mamie, but not with Gitl.

      • JoAnn(ZMT) says:

        MAMIE?? Ptoi-ptoi. For those of you reading the blog, “Hester Street” is such a wonderful film. A very young Carol Kane(and a young Doris Roberts as her landlady) and so powerful. Gitl is not only pressured to become “Americanized” and lose her Russian culture, but also the physical appearance and clothing of her Orthodox Jewish faith. Carol Kane is very gifted as she shows the culture shock she sees not only in her new country, but her “new” husband who was no longer the man who kissed her goodbye in Russia.
        Oh, I could go on and on…just watch it! And if you are able to go to NYC’s Chinatown, you can see the original Hester Street. While it is no longer a Jewish ghetto, the old apartment buildings are still there.

  9. valerieRN says:

    Ooh! It sounds like it went very well, Karen! So glad to hear that. Thanks for sharing the experience with all of us. 🙂

  10. skat35 says:

    This was a great story Karen. I am so happy that you decided to do this lesson with the blog radio CD. Great idea! And so happy that Charlies & Laurie were happy to help out. So happy that you are a fan of his and have been blogging on “only connect” too. Thinking you have good taste in actors. lol Maybe we peas in a pod? Kidding! wishing i was a knowledgeable as you .

  11. skat35 says:

    I think i like this blog! :0)

  12. Beverly Reddig says:

    What an interesting concept–I’ll bet your students were surprised!

    • Karen says:

      Somewhat. I had hinted on Monday that there would be something different than usual for the Immigration lecture, but I didn’t specifically tell them what it would be. But they did seem pleased. Now I just hope I didn’t set the bar too high, and they expect the same thing in every lecture the remainder of the semester.

  13. Liane Walta says:

    I wish I had such a lecturer in history as you are Karen. I think your students are very lucky to have a “Prof” like you who makes history come alive and even presents a “live” immigrant with Charlie! I found your description of how you approached this venture most interesting, and I am so happy that you received consent from the people concerned to bring that interview.
    Actually Charlie´s suggestion to Skype sounds very interesting and maybe it may happen in the near future.
    I must admit I don´t know the film “Hester Street”, but on my last visit in NYC I did a tour and saw where the first immigrants lived and worked . Some of the housing still exists only modernised and I think the guide mentioned Hester Street.
    I really enjoyed your blog and am looking forward to the next one. L.

    • Karen says:

      Thanks, Liane! It’s nice to get the perspective of someone who hasn’t grown up in the American educational system. I try to make history come alive as much as possible in the classroom; occasionally this just includes photographs of historic properties or documentaries, but occasionally I can incorporate YouTube clips and audio excerpts. They seem to pay attention more when I do that, although when I asked them today, all they would admit to remembering from Friday’s lecture was that “Mr. Sheffield” talked to them–and they were a bit disappointed that they were only going to hear my voice today.

  14. Jen Brennan says:

    Dr. Guenther, I really miss your lectures. Bravo on figuring on succeeding with getting the sound clip in the power point. I have no idea how that would work. I’m glad Charlie’s voice during the lecture was a hit. I also learned a bit about immigration policy.

    I’ll have to swing back to Mansfield to hear this lecture and the Wizard of Oz lecture.

    • Karen says:


      Thanks for the compliment! I teach this class during the spring semesters–the next “performance” will be next year (probably in early February, weather permitting). The Populism/Wizard of Oz lecture is usually the same week or the following week.

      Don’t give me too much praise for knowing how all this worked. Through magic (and prayer), the sound clip with Charlie worked last Friday. Today, when I tried to play an audio link (I found a copy of William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech online), it kept disconnecting, and the students were stuck with me reading the excerpts instead of hearing Bryan’s voice. I found out that if I can embed the clip, it works; if I insert a link into the PowerPoint, it depends on the whims of the computer in the classroom, because it worked perfectly fine at home. So it’s still a work in progress.

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