Getting to know your students’ names and work ethic is always an important task in the first couple of weeks of the semester. But how much information is useful and what is too much?
Last spring I began using an iPhone app called, appropriately, Attendance. At $4.99, it’s proven to be a worthwhile and remarkably functional tool. Not only does the app maintain attendance records in your phone, but it also delivers reports delivered to your e-mail and more significantly, offers a means to easily learn students’ names.
By integrating with the iPhone’s camera, you can take a photo of each student directly from the app. The picture is then displayed next to the student’s name (and can be enlarged when necessary). On the first day of class, I take the students’ pictures, explaining to them what I’m doing and why. I make sure to take everyone’s photo, even if I know several of the students from previous classes. Everyone has been accepting of my mildly intrusive behavior.
The app offers multiple features. Prior to the start of the semester, you can set up the names by typing each of them into the app (which is time consuming) or by importing a class list using Blackboard to download an Excel file of the class (using the download button in the Grade Center); you can manipulate this spreadsheet to include three columns: “first”, “last” and “email” (not “e-mail”, as I learned the hard way). The students’ usernames are included in Blackboard download, so you paste “@sjfc.edu” after each username to create an e-mail column. Finally, by e-mailing this revised spreadsheet to yourself in .csv format, your iPhone mail program offers the option to open the attachment in Attendance. The inclusion of the students’ e-mails allows you to send an entire note to your class from your phone. (Car broke down? Have to cancel class at the last minute?) Then, an instructor either can add all the class dates in a few minutes time prior to the start of the semester or simply add the current date each day before taking attendance; with a touch of an onscreen button you set everyone to “Present” and then switch any missing students to “Absent”, “Excused”, “Late”, or “Unknown”.
In the App Store, you can learn more and see images of the app, which is satisfying to use, saves paper, makes the attendance task a bit more fun, and makes learning names a snap.
However, sometimes technology tells you more than you need to know. Just as the Attendance App helps me learn the students’ names and faces, I find using Facebook as a platform for discussion helps students to not only access our workspace easily, but also to become familiar with each other (since profile pictures are part the layout).
Specifically, I create a group and require the students to join. This process does not require “friending” students. (As for the students who don’t have a Facebook account, I suggest they make a FB account with a fake alias—I just ask them to reveal their real identity to me and their classmates.) Facebook is very effective for distributing articles of interest published during the semester. It also offers a highly intuitive discussion board interface. (Some of my colleagues have chosen to use Yammer, which offers a similar experience, matching the Facebook interface within a closed environment. While you have greater privacy and a more clearly defined academic space, there’s also less convenience in that you must access yet another site.)
This semester, I had a new experience. During the first weekend after classes began, my phone vibrated with every discussion posting, offering a notification of who had made the post. These intrusions gave me an interesting overview of the work habits (or at the least the work times) of my students.
In the end, I’m uncertain about what to do with this newly gained information. There’s something to be said about the leveling of student effort when one simply collects papers on the due date. On the other hand, most online discussions include a time stamp, but these more easily go unnoticed. Ultimately, getting up-to-the-minute notification of student achievement offered added weekend entertainment (“when will it vibrate next?”) and insight into the variation of student work habits. (More students worked Saturday night and fewer completed their work late Sunday than you might expect.)
But, before the following weekend, I readjusted my Facebook settings, mentally wished my students well, and left the knowledge of their work habits behind me, allowing them to work with greater anonymity and myself to enjoy some peace.
Thanks to Joellen Maples for joining our blogging team. Todd Sodano is up next in a couple of weeks!