Diversity and Democracy

Student-Driven Technological Change in a Contingent Faculty Classroom

When I think about using technology in the classroom, I often take the perspective of a contingent faculty member. I have had two forays into the world of contingency, the second of which began shortly after I earned my PhD, when I taught courses on gender and sexuality at a private liberal arts institution. I was chronically pressed for time as I balanced teaching with academic research and a full-time position outside of academia. Nonetheless, I was committed to creating an interesting and relevant learning environment for my students. To me, this included embedding technology into my course design—a task that felt daunting for an adjunct, particularly in light of the discussions about flipped classrooms that have become ubiquitous across higher education.

In flipped classrooms, faculty use new technologies to reconfigure their courses by turning “class time into a workshop” through collaborative, “hands-on activities” (EDUCAUSE 2012). Students may watch prerecorded lectures prior to class meetings and enter the classroom ready to apply course concepts to “lab-style” projects (EDUCAUSE 2012). Flipping the classroom can also involve “digital readings with collaborative annotation capabilities,” discussion boards, clicker technology, and “a cloud-based classroom-management system” (Demski 2013). As exciting as these approaches sound, the flipped classroom demands extensive “planning and experimentation” (Demski 2013) and “careful preparation” (EDUCAUSE 2012). In other words, it requires faculty members to increase their workloads outside of the classroom (at least at the outset) while developing a new skill set—a particular challenge for contingent faculty members, who are often sorely lacking in time and institutional support.

As a contingent faculty member, I didn’t have any training on how to flip my classroom. My relationship with the institution’s technology services consisted of one quick Moodle tutorial and various calls for help when technology issues came up in class. While I wanted to incorporate more technology into my courses, I forged ahead with what felt like minimal involvement: I posted readings on Moodle, brought social media into classroom discussions, and required students to engage with the news media in their assignments. As I read or heard about various innovative faculty members and their flipped classrooms, I felt like I wasn’t doing enough. By my second semester of teaching at the institution, however, I had become acutely aware of something important: even though I wasn’t flipping the classroom, my students were pushing me to use technology beyond what I had originally planned, which helped them demonstrate their learning.

Student Innovation and Engagement

Each semester, right around the due date of the first assignment (which was also right after I finished laying some early theoretical groundwork for the course), students began e-mailing me hyperlinks to articles, blog posts, and videos on current issues relevant to the course material. Although I never prompted students to send these e-mails, with every hyperlink that rolled into my inbox came an opportunity to engage students on course topics. I invited these students to become my coeducators in the classroom, where they discussed the media they had found with their peers using a critical lens.

The practice of students sharing relevant news articles with professors is nothing new. What is new is the expediency with which technology allows this sharing to happen, which has implications for how faculty members can incorporate shared materials into their courses. As students supplemented our course material with current media, they also demonstrated that they were actively applying their learning and engaging in the course material beyond the classroom. This level of student participation reminded me of a (deconstructed) discussion board like the ones used in flipped classrooms. As students continued to send me articles, blog posts, and videos, I thought about setting up a formal discussion board to encourage student communication outside of class. But the fact that students were organically creating this teaching and learning space—without any prompt from me—seemed critical to their engagement.

Students’ self-driven, technology-assisted engagement not only changed the nature of our classroom, but also aided my ability to formatively assess student learning. Formative assessments help faculty “monitor student learning” in order to “recognize where students are struggling” (or, in my experience, where they are quietly excelling) (Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence 2013). For example, some faculty members assign “minute papers” at the end of class meetings, asking students to “write down the most important point from class that day as well as any unanswered questions they may have” (Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching 2013). My students’ engagement with current media provided an excellent opportunity for me to formatively assess their learning, as an example from my Sociology of Sexuality course illustrates.

Assessing Student Learning: Sociology of Sexuality

Included in the learning outcomes of my Sociology of Sexuality course was the requirement that students demonstrate an understanding of sexuality as an intersectional concept that is socially and culturally constructed. To encourage this learning outcome, I created writing assignments that required students to critically analyze institutional norms in relation to sexuality, while describing sexual identities as diverse, fluid, contextual, and historically based. The first writing assignment focused on sexual identity formation, and most students wrote about the topic from their personal perspectives, demonstrating critical thinking and integrative, applied learning. At the same time, students were demonstrating these outcomes informally as they e-mailed me articles, blog posts, and videos. I was able to use this evidence, in addition to their formal writing assignment, to formatively assess student learning.

For example, one student e-mailed me two hyperlinks in close proximity to the due date of the first writing assignment. One was a TED talk by an artist who discusses her own sexual identity formation in connection to sexual fluidity and gender performativity, and the other was an article about a transgender girl who was not permitted to use the girls’ bathroom at her elementary school. Both the video and the article were accompanied by comments from the student, who made direct links to the course material. When I asked the student to speak in the classroom, she provoked discussions about the video and the article with her peers who, in turn, further critically evaluated these supplemental course materials.

This exchange gave me the opportunity to push this student to further engage with the course material in her subsequent writing assignments. Her first paper was strong, but it didn’t include an adequately deep analysis of sexual identity formation using class readings. I knew the student could delve deeper, having witnessed her critical discussions of current media. With a little encouragement and feedback, the student ended up producing some of the best academic writing I saw from students in the course. Thus as this student used technology to expand the boundaries of our classroom, she provided an opportunity for me to formatively assess her ability to think critically and integrate and apply her learning—and to connect that assessment to her writing assignments.

Technology and the Contingent Experience

The era of the flipped classroom provides faculty with exciting opportunities to engage students using new technologies. But faculty members need time and institutional support (including training in the use of new technologies) to successfully flip their classrooms—provisions that generally aren’t available to those off the tenure track. If higher education administrators are interested in seeing the contingent majority teach innovatively, they may want to consider offering paid professional development opportunities to adjuncts, including workshops on classroom flipping. Unfortunately, too few institutions offer this kind of support, and contingent faculty members continue to be left behind in the trend toward higher education innovation. Nonetheless, contingent faculty can collaborate with students to use technology effectively in the classroom and to connect learning outcomes to technology in meaningfully ways.


Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching. 2013. “Learning and Teaching Topics: Formative Classroom Assessment.” http://www.humboldt.edu/celt/topics/formative_classroom_assessment/.

Demski, Jennifer. 2013. “6 Expert Tips for Flipping the Classroom.” Campus Technology, January 23. http://campustechnology.com/articles/2013/01/23/6-expert-tips-for-flipping-the-classroom.aspx.

Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence. 2013. “What is the Difference Between Formative and Summative Assessment?”

EDUCAUSE. 2012. “7 Things You Should Know About Flipped Classrooms.” EDUCAUSE, February. http://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/eli7081.pdf.

Rebecca Dolinsky is program manager and research analyst at the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

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