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Day 3: Using apps sustainably and openly

Apps and other platforms can add a lot to teaching, but can also eat up a lot of time and energy dealing with issues that can arise. In this post, we’ll look at how you can mitigate some of these issues by thinking about the sustainability and openness of tools that you chose to use.


Is the technology sustainable?

Looking up at a canopy of tree leaves.

Technologies can go away just as quickly as they arise. In the last few years, services that have been used for teaching and learning have disappeared. Examples include Wikispaces, a collaborative social writing platform which closed due to insufficient funding to support its ongoing infrastructure, and Storify, a social media curation service which discontinued after its parent company was bought over another digital publishing powerhouse. These examples show how apps and platforms can disappear for a myriad of reasons – with or without warning to its customers. If you are using external tools, you need to ensure that the learning experience of students is not significantly impacted should the tools become unavailable.

Terms of use of external tools can also change. Third party tools, open or otherwise, have quite a lot of leeway to change the way they operate, or even terminate your account (and your students’ accounts) at any time without reason. Consider this statement taken from Padlet’s Terms of Service:

“Padlet may also terminate or suspend your access to or ability to use any and all Services immediately, without prior notice or liability, for any reason or no reason…”

These terms of service are not unique to Padlet and are similar across many external platforms. It has significant implications particularly if you are using these platforms to assess students: You are liable and responsible for everything you put up, but the tools you use do not have the same responsibilities to protect you or your students!

How can you set up external tools to be used sustainably for teaching and learning?

Beyond the technology itself, you also need to consider the longevity of its use. Below is a list of questions you may want to ask yourself before deciding on using an external tool:

Ask yourself… Our commentary…
How will you back-up students’ work? Some universities engage in services to “scrape” (or save a snapshot of) information from external tools as a means of data retention. Most platforms also have archiving or export functions that you should consider using to help you keep track of activities and address any issues that may arise in future (e.g. Dispute over grading).
Is it equitable and accessible? There are again several considerations here including how and when the tool is accessed (e.g. mobile devices needed during class) and if it meets accessibility requirements. Asking your students if they can or have the means to complete the activity, especially if it is compulsory (e.g. Assessment), is critical. I often use an online web accessibility checker (e.g. WAVE) as well to help me gauge if the content I put up is accessible.
Is it easy to use? This question helps you to weigh between time and effort needed to set-up and run the activity versus intended outcome. If it takes too much time for your students to complete the activity, for example, will the outcomes and learning experience of the class be impacted?
Do you, your teachers or students need training and support?  Providing (or receiving) training and support requires additional time and resources that should be within your consideration.
Are you intending to repeat this activity in future? The design of activities can change depending on the need for repetition. For example, using polling services such as Poll Everywhere may take a long time to run in the first few sessions as students are unfamiliar with the tool but this resolves over time as you and your students become familiar with the platform.
Do you have an alternative? As discussed above, if the tool becomes unavailable, do you have a back-up plan?
How is this communicated to students? Students need to be communicated to about the use of these tools especially if they are required to sign-up for an account or if they are being assessed on these platforms (preferably prior to the start of the course).  There have also been cases where students were advised to sign up to a service using their university login information and passwords which was subsequently hacked. This has implications to the university’s security systems.

question markActivity 1

There are many more questions to be asked here. Can you think of any? Share your other questions and considerations in the comments.


How open do you want you and your students’ work to be?

I am a big fan of open educational practices (OEP) as they seek to reduce barriers to accessing education (see our coffee course on Open Educational Practice). Using external tools such as Twitter or blogs to teach can invite very vibrant forms of teaching where students can engage in discussions beyond the scope of their coursework, and bring in experts from beyond the classroom into the discussion.

A bird of paradise flower in bloom.

While I enjoy this form of openness, there are several caveats that need to be considered. For example, students may not be comfortable sharing information or their views in public – this may be because they are shy but there is also a serious consideration as to whether students should be represented by their assignments or classroom discussions in public, especially after they graduate. In recent years, there have been initiatives such as “Domain of One’s Own” which aim to help institutions and their students gain control of their own data and avoid advertisements while continuing to be publicly available on the World Wide Web. This has received positive feedback,  as it encourages a pedagogical shift away from traditional forms of teaching, but has also opened up questions about ownership and agency. If a piece of work is publicly available but also required to be assessed, can it be a fair representation of the student’s view?

As an educator, do you want your work to be available in the open? In the spirit of OEP, I hope you may wish to share some of your wisdom with the rest of the internet and external tools can drive this (without risking students’ privacy). Tools such as Oppia and H5P are open source platforms that allow you to create interactive lessons, videos, etc. and embed them into your course. Basic usage data is recorded but unidentifiable (except for the content creator who has to sign up for an account) if the tool is not integrated with your LMS. These platforms are usually Creative Commons licensed but you generally have a degree of control over your content such as in H5P where you can disable embedding and downloading functions.

question markActivity 2

Have you ever taught “in the open”, outside the boundaries of the LMS? Why did you do it and what was your experience like? If you haven’t done so, share your thoughts about teaching in the public eye. What concerns or opportunities might arise?

Now that we have gone through a range of factors to consider, in the next post we’ll get to the fun part – what cool tools are out there for teachers?

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19 thoughts on “Day 3: Using apps sustainably and openly

  1. This may sound lo-fi, but because I use quiz functions quite often for teaching grammar (both internally in Wattle and externally via Quizlet), I always type the content up in Microsoft Word and store it to Dropbox before transferring it to the quiz interface. It is an extra step, but I just copy and paste it over, and I know if the quiz crashes or the software becomes unavailable, I still have the original content that can be transferred to a new space. Nothing’s crashed yet, but it gives me peace of mind!

    1. Hi Gemma, this is excellent! You can even keep it as a record for the following year, using other platforms if something goes wrong – a very sustainable approach. I want to learn more about quizlet! How do you use it and how have you/your students found it. Do you also keep a record of their responses? Would love to hear more:)

      1. Thanks, Lye Ee, yes it means if I change the technology or modality used, I don’t have to start all over again. I haven’t kept track of student responses though, as I haven’t used online quizzes for assessment (yet), just for homework and revision. Quizlet is great because you can input the data (usually French vocabulary in my case) and it can test you in various ways, including flashcards. It makes quizzes more interactive and visual. I mostly keep with Wattle these days, though, mostly because it’s simpler to keep students on the course page and I can track their progress in the one spot. I encourage them to make their own Quizlets, though.

        1. Thanks Gemma. Certainly a key consideration is whether using apps is an extra step to participating in class. Sometimes it can be a lot more troublesome to sign in to apps if you can already do something similar on your LMS. So following Tom’s point below, a question to ask when thinking about using apps is: Will our LMS do the job and what makes the app more beneficial for learning. Getting students to design their own Quizlets for self-study is also a wonderful idea! Thanks for sharing.

    2. Gemma, is there some way to download the quizzes from Quizlet, so you can import them again if needed? Moodle quizzes can be exported and imported, but I don’t know about Quizlet.

  2. Some questions about Apps:

    * Where is the data hosted? Check the App data hosted in a jurisdiction consistent with your institution’s legal and ethical obligations to the student. As an example, if your institution is in Australia, what countries is it okay to have the App data stored in?

    * Will our LMS do the job? Try out your LMS on a mobile device, and see if this is good enough to do the job without the need for a third party App. If not, see if there is an add-on for the LMS which will do.

    * What App do the students want? Before telling the students which App to use, try asking them for suggestions.

    On designing in the open:

    I normally design courses “in the open”, unless someone is paying me to do it closed (which they rarely do). Before I had access to a good LMS, I provided hand crafted web pages on my own web site for students. Now I design the materials for courses in the open on a blog. However, I then transfer the material to an LMS for the interaction with students, so as to protect their privacy. I still make a copy of the materials available publicly under an open license on my web site. This is a way to promote my services as an an educator, and to acknowledge those who contributed. It is also useful where new students don’t yet have access to the LMS: they can use the open version in the interim.

    ps: I will be giving a free talk “Mobile Learning with Micro-Credentials for International Students”, on the Expo Main Stage at EduTECH in Sydney, 4pm Thursday. All welcome.

    1. Hi Tom, great questions! I would certainly ask if your LMS can do the job and why you’ve opted to use something else. Asking students to suggest apps is interesting – have you done that before and what did you use?

      Love the idea of having both an open website and one behind LMS to protect students’ privacy. Do your students interact with your open resources at all? Would certainly love to hear more. Thanks Tom!

  3. I haven’t taught “in the open” yet. My main concerns are similar to the questions raised about using external tools sustainably. How would I find the balance between sharing and privacy, equity, support, etc? My goal as an educator is not just to pass on information, but to build up students’ capabilities. I do not have the answers yet, but I am hoping these sorts of courses and discussions will provide insight.

  4. 1. I am so accustomed to backing up my work with Dropbox that I would likely try to back up students’ work with the same method. I worry about the accessibility of these internet resources during class, particularly as students might not necessarily have android phones capable of viewing these apps. I would think that many of these apps would require a laptop screen, simply because of their detail. Bringing in laptops, like having phones out, could cause students to procrastinate by surfing social media apps. Having to constantly look out for this kind of behaviour could be exhausting for the tutor. Given that there are normally very few assessments in one subject, it seems unlikely that it would be necessary to use an app twice unless it is built into each lesson plan; teaching students how to use it might prove a waste of time.
    2. Having voiced all my concerns, I should add that I agree with the view that there are exciting possibilities with the use of apps, but I lack the confidence to adopt one without consulting other academics first. Weighing up the convenience of the app’s offerings versus the inconvenience of implementation (teaching students how to use it etc.) would be at the forefront of my mind, as would student privacy.

    1. Hi Luisa, I think consulting with your academic colleagues before using a new tool or app is a great suggestion. Having some “on-the-ground” feedback from other people who have used can be really helpful in deciding when and how to use new tools, and getting some pointers on how to use it effectively. I’d love to set up a group at ANU of people using external tools where they can share ideas and advice – future plan when our team has some more capacity!

  5. In the ANU TechLauncher program I help teach the students can pick their own apps, if they don’t like the ones provided. They end up educating me.
    With the open resources it is usually the students who can’t get into the LMS, because they only just enrolled, using it.

    ps: Greetings from the EduTECH exhibition floor in Sydney.

  6. I think the questions presented intext here and the ones others have raised are all very important. However, I think maybe the most important question that we should ask ourselves is how this app will improve the students learning experience? Is it something that will help with a certain assessment task, or in understanding a key concept? Is it going to add an authentic angle to their learning experience? Going back to the sustainability aspect, I think it’s important for us to ask these questions to ensure that the external tools will be beneficial to the students, rather than creating unnecessary additional work for both teachers and students with no strong positive payoffs.

    I have yet to teach “in the open” but I have been curious about it and even more so now with this course. I think there are pros and cons with it, just like everything; however, as long as the students have an alternate option open to them (so that their decision to not participate will not influence their final grades) these tools could be effectively utilised to encourage students to approach the subjects in new ways and could particularly help some for whom typical lecture/traditional assessment environments are not ideal. That said, it is our responsibility to keep on top of the potential disadvantages, limitations, and instances of misuse that could arise.

  7. So, I have a question – I’ve been told that I can’t have an assessment task with an “in the open” aspect to it because it’s against ANU policy. Which, one a scale of one to 10, is at Awkward O’Clock since my course is eMarketing, and the two assessment tasks were “Design / plan an activity (40%)” “Go implement that on the internet in the real world (formative) and write up how it went with a reflective analysis” (60%). Being told that I can’t expect students to engage in outside facing activity seems like it would sink School of Music, School of Art, Internships and uh, Med School pracs? Is my person who shall remain in a position of authority over me being over cautious, or do we have a No Outside Play rule?

    1. Hi Stephen, great question! Bearing in mind that I am not the be-all-and-end-all of university policies, taking a look at the Student Coursework Assessment Policy does give some clues:

      I would say that there is no specific policy forbidding assessment being conducted in non-ANU systems. You’re absolutely right that lots of other schools use outside tools. The policy indicates that assessments need to be submitted through Turnitin/Wattle, but this is easily combined with external platforms. For example, submit a link through Wattle to the external spaces that you have built. In your case, the reflective component could easily be submitted through Wattle/Turnitin. As far as I know, there is no “No Outside Play” rule at ANU. There may be, though, school- or college-based norms or rules in addition to the university policy though – perhaps that is what your school colleague is referring to? That’s my two cents!

  8. I haven’t “taught in the open” for a few reasons: I feared I would be breaching my school’s policy. The school where I used to work had a policy that the content you created while you worked for them was their intellectual property. But to be honest, I never explored how they would feel about me teaching in the open… The main reasons why I didn’t take the leap were:
    – I had concerns over students’ privacy. If I were to teach in the open, I would want my students to be able to control their level of anonymity to the wider public.
    – I taught adults and a good portion of them had not grown up with technology. So ease of accessibility was something I had a to consider. As a rule of thumb, I put all the essential content (announcements, class diary, class forum, assessments) on the LMS of the school. For the extras (‘just for fun’ quizzes, sharing my PPTs, etc.), I used external apps. I guess the exception was that I used Doodle Data poll to let students pick when they did their oral exam. It is really easy to use, and most students had no trouble with it. One time a student came up to me and asked if I could reserve a slot for her – which was easy to do and solved the accessibility problem.
    – Time constraints. They are a very real thing for teachers, and something we should be mindful of if we want to have a life outside work.
    But it’s definitely food for thought! Teaching in the open has its advantages, reducing education barriers being one of them. But I think it can also really foster a sense of collegiality and collaboration between teachers. Definitely something I would consider at my next teaching gig!

  9. Yes, I have gone open, however, because of risks related to the use of the “harvested”/generated data, I have always been very forefront where the boundary of LMS and these open tools is. The use has been optional to the students. The reason for taking the risk has been superior contribution of these tools to the education I provide. E.g., the discussion forums on Piazza are a lot better (and gamified) than those on Wattle.

    1. Hi Hanna, this is really interesting – I’d love to hear more about how you use Piazza and how it is integrated in the course. I know many people around ANU are using it and I myself have found it to be a great tool with its social features. You mentioned these open tools are optional – do you find most students use them, or do you have to prepare alternatives for students who don’t? Thanks!

  10. I haven’t taught ‘in the open’ yet either. I would be particularly concerned about using tools outside of the LMS for assessable items due to similar concerns about the longevity of the platform and the privacy of students as outlined above. Also, for most assessment it is a requirement that students submit via Turnitin. That being said, I have found outside tools useful for icebreaking and brainstorming activities in tutorials.

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