Software for Teaching

I would love to get some feedback from both teachers and students on what software they use and find useful for managing classes, scheduling appointments, creating interactive assignments and so on. Ideally all of this would work well within one package, like Blackboard. I am not sure if this is (near)-monopoly at work but my perception is that Blackboard has gotten worse over the years. The functionality of its new features, like blogs, lags so far behind what is available outside the Blackboard suite that it is actually worth the pain of using different applications for different objectives. One of my pet peeves with a lot of educational software is that it is really hard to see what your students see, so that even when everything seems to make sense from your end it doesn’t to a student who accesses the system. Anyway, here are some things that I use:

  • This is a scheduling tool. I set my availability on a weekly or daily basis and students can pick a meeting time. The program automatically updates my Google calendar and sends notifications to students reminding them of their appointments. The beauty of this is that it cuts out the mindless e-mails whose sole purpose is to find times outside of regularly scheduled office hours. Students like it because there are no more lines at office hours and because they are less inhibited to set up appointments this way than via e-mail. My sense is that this has led to increased attendance at office hours. I generally make about 4 hours a week available and it generally fills up (this includes honors/master thesis students). Aside from the unfortunate name (“I tungled my prof”), my one minor complaint is that I cannot force students to pick one-and-only-one time. Even though I tell students not to do this, many still pick multiple times and let me choose.
  • Turnitin: Turnitin is known as a detection tool for plagiarism but it can do much more. It has nice tools to markup papers and, especially, to set up peer review. Peer review is great not just because students benefit from the comments of their peers and seeing the writing of their peers. Peer review is also a great motivating tool. Students care a lot about what their peers think of them. As always, there is room for improvement in the software. It is not always straightforward to use and there could be better integration with wordprocessing software. I’d also like the software to be able to help students with things like proper citations. Not having to do that would leave profs more time for substantive comments.
  • WordPress: This is the blogging software my university (and now this blog) uses and it works well. Georgetown gives great support for people who want to use blogs in their classes. I use it for some but not all of my classes. In my policy classes I use it to develop skills for writing short arguments. The difficulty is that blogs are really hard to grade.

Anyway, I would love to hear from profs and students about their experiences with these or other tools. Do they enhance the classroom experience?

18 Responses to Software for Teaching

  1. Andrew Gelman May 20, 2011 at 9:33 am #

    1. I’d just recommending changing “professors” above to “teachers” or “instructors.” I think you’ll get lots of useful teaching ideas from people who don’t have the “professor” title.

    2. We’ve had success with clickers. Students work on problems individually or in pairs. Clickers are also a painless way to check attendance and make sure students show up to class on time.

    • Erik Voeten May 20, 2011 at 10:07 am #


  2. Eric May 20, 2011 at 9:34 am #

    We use Turnitin & Pearson Learning Studio (formerly eCollege — recently purchased by Pearson). Starting in the fall, the two will be integrated so that papers turned in through the Pearson site can be checked through Turnitin.

    I’ve never been a big fan of Learning Studio, but it has gotten better. It has threaded discussions, live chat, doc sharing, webliography, and student dropboxes. Unlike some other software, the professor and student interfaces are actually very similar. Students can upload documents into the doc sharing section that are available to classmates. The grade book function lets you choose between a points based grading system or a weighted grading system; students like it because it gives you an up-to-date average on all completed work. One fix they made a few years ago is that you can now input grades for an entire class on one page (previously, you had to click on each student name, enter the grade, and save). So it’s not great, but it’s functional.

    I also like turnitin. I think the user interface is a bit clunky, but it seems to be effective. The key is to work with students so that they understand everything that constitutes plagiarism and to be flexible with the system. I don’t set a cutoff point of the the percentage of a paper that appears to come from other sources as frequently that can vary with quotations and the nature of the subject. My experience has been that, using the report, it is pretty easy to distinguish plagiarism. I have one colleague who has had several students plagiarize. I’ve had a few borderline cases where the problem was student ignorance, not outright cheating. I find that by letting students know at the start of the semester the capabilities of the system, they are dissuaded from cheating. The one thing it can’t catch, of course, is students who buy custom papers. For most of my classes, though, I have fairly specific assignments which I hope limits those possibilities. I absolutely agree on citations — we have running disagreements in our department, though, so part of it is probably our fault for using variations on a theme. My goal is for students to at least understand what needs to be cited along with the standard of providing enough information that the cited material is easy to find.

    I don’t use the peer review function on turnitin, which I probably should as I do use peer review in my classes. I normally do it in groups, however, as I find the conversations students have as they are reading one another’s work to be quite interesting.

    Finally, I don’t currently blog, but I probably should restart. I run our school’s Model UN program, and we’ve toyed with the idea of having a team blog.

    Anyway, these are my unfocused thoughts.

    *addendum — I used an online simulation this year in one class called Statecraft ( This was the first semester it was available. The idea behind it is great; the main issues we had was the user interface, both student and professor. From my perspective, it was not particularly easy to follow what students were doing. They are releasing a new version for the fall. I think it has a great deal of potential, though it still needs work.

  3. Aslaug May 20, 2011 at 9:55 am #

    At Bates College, all our courses have websites on the platform. We used to have WebCT, which I think was designed by people who had never been in a classroom. When Blackboard bought it, we switched to this freeware. It is relatively user friendly, you can customize it for your course to include discussions groups, blogs etc. I really like it.

  4. Kieran May 20, 2011 at 9:55 am #

    Blackboard is an unmitigated piece of crap, and I can see no reason to use it at all. The standard of software design in this whole area is just terrible, and the market is distorted because neither instructors nor students are the consumer, but rather university administrators who never use the things themselves except maybe insofar as they can generate aggregate reports. So there’s no incentive for them not to suck. They advance by accreting “features” (which can be presented to buyers in handy bullet-point lists) but retaining a terrible basic design.

    A related problem is that most self-consciously “tech in the classroom” stuff is characterized by very little thinking about what the tech is actually for, as opposed to fetishizing its presence. It’s a classic “Garbage Can” situation where the tech or social media doodad is a solution in search of a problem—maybe useful in particular settings, but subsequently pushed as a general thing that all right-thinking educators should use.

    I think the successful stuff tend to be quite focused tools that solve problems that are usually not in the classroom as such, like appointment scheduling. For in-class stuff, the main exception I can think of are clickers, which can in certain kinds of courses be quite useful. They work in problem-solving settings, as Andrew mentioned, and can also be a useful way of getting students to “see themselves” in the data/readings, or see themselves as data, so to speak. I know people who’ve used them successfully in Soc of Culture and Stratification courses, for instance, with nice results—showing how aesthetic tastes map onto parental education, say, or locating their family’s position in the income distribution, or demonstrating phenomena like pluralistic ignorance, or what have you.

  5. Tracy Lightcap May 20, 2011 at 12:33 pm #

    In general, I agree with Kieran; most of this stuff is worst then useless.

    Oth, there are degrees of suckiness. We use Sakai at my institution and, while it can be challenging and we don’t get adequate support, it’s useful for communication and it’s free. Needless to say, it was the last part that sold us (well, that and that we couldn’t get people to use Blackboard). I haven’t made nearly the use of Sakai that I could – I’m still learning – but it has real possibilities.

    Another in general here, in line with Aslaug: no college anywhere should actually pay for this stuff. With Sakai and Moodles available, faculties full of people with at least some brains, and the utter crap on the commercial market the choice to go with open source is self-evident.

  6. Martin Edwards May 20, 2011 at 1:03 pm #


    I swapped blogposts for one paper in an undergrad class, I found them much easier and quicker to grade, and students have a little more ownership since they’re developing short writing skills. I asked students to summarize a news article and discuss its broader significance in light of course themes – and never had to worry about explaining grades or appeals. Once I showed students the rubric it was easy-peasy.

  7. Dale Sheldon-Hess May 20, 2011 at 5:56 pm #

    Another vote here for Moodle (haven’t personally touched Sakai). It has, I think, all the functionality of Blackboard, and does at least some things Blackboard can’t. I work the installation for the local school district (50,000 students total, 14,000 so far (mostly high school) using Moodle) and I’m trying to convince the local university to switch to it as well.

  8. Michael Nelson May 20, 2011 at 9:42 pm #

    I’ve used the three you mention above (tungle, turnitin, wordpress). But here is my current software usage:

    1. WordPress: Course website (examples: and The website IS the course syllabus, and I post lecture slides and links to readings on the website. In one class, I treat blog posts as if they were serious written assignments. In the other, I treat them as a form of class participation. They just have to post something to show they are engaged and they either get the credit or don’t.

    2. Bento (Mac only): This is a simple database program which I use to track student work. I have forms created for feedback on presentations and written assignments. And it is easy to mail the forms as PDFs back to students with just a few clicks.

    3. Scrivener (Mac and Windows): This is a writing program. I use it for drafting lectures. It really makes it easy to move material around and update for future iterations of a course. I highly recommend people take a look.

    • Nathan Paxton May 21, 2011 at 11:50 am #


      1. Do you have to run the WP software yourself, of does your university do it for you?

      2. I’d love to see your Bento template.

      3. Another vote for Scrivener. It’s also great for writing academic papers, as you can write chunks, rearrange them, see multiple at once, store research and notes, and it’s all contained in one file, rather than scattered across the hard drive. (The file is actually a folder package, but everything is stored n RTF format inside the “file” so you’ll never lose the data, even if corruption occurs.) James Fallows at has a series of posts on Scrivener that describe it fairly well.

  9. m. dickison May 22, 2011 at 6:55 pm #

    This is my fourth year administering my AP course wiki on It can do all of the above software programs mentioned, i.e., WordPress, Bento, Scrivener, and more. It is more flexible than either Moodle or Blackboard. One can either administer it themselves or through their institution. Students can have their own pages and/or do collaborative work with peers. Pages can be made private or public. One can upload any format (PDF, Word, PowerPoint, Keynote etc.), type notes in for review, blog, respond to student comments, embed videos, movies, enable interactive student response polls, embed help chat software such as Meebo, discussion software such as Tangler, and/or maintain an interactive syllabus/Google calendar to name some of the capabilities available.
    One can also send out email notifications with one click to everyone on the wiki, or separately. PBworks keeps track of page changes (by time, date, and person) as well as all pages and files used/uploaded. Wiki pages can be “tagged” and located within your wiki’s personal search engine. PBworks maintains a HELP line for any user, including students. If you run into trouble with embedding certain programs, or other administrator issues, PBworks customer service responds within 24 hours. Moreover, they stay with you until the problem is solved. I highly recommend this company:

  10. Rachael Cobb May 23, 2011 at 8:01 am #

    I use google forms for grading. I create a form in which I enter the students’ last name. Then I create grids for each area of the paper. The columns have numbers, the rows have words describing the area for assessment. I also add a space for comments. When I am done grading it, but before I press submit, I send the student a .pdf of his/her rubric. When I hit submit, I get everyone’s grades in a spreadsheet. I can add them up and also analyze papers by section across the entire class.

    I also publish a spreadsheet of their grades using google spreadsheet, using random numbers that only each individual student knows.

    I also have the students learn zotero. Does anyone use zotero with scrivener?

  11. Erik May 23, 2011 at 8:29 am #

    This is exceptionally helpful! There are several pieces of software that I did not know about but will give a try over the summer.

  12. Wendy May 23, 2011 at 9:07 am #

    Thanks for the tip on tungle … looks interesting!

    I do use the blog and journal features of Blackboard (our version of Bb has “grading forms” that you can create in advance and use as a rubric when you grade … makes it much easier). I definitely think that blogs need to be graded via a rubric of some sort, if only so students know what is expected of them.

    In addition to Bb, I’m diving into a number of software options this coming fall: Turning Point clickers, PB Works wikis (tip: have each student in a group use a different color of type so you have a running record of who contributed what), and Digication’s e-Portfolio system.

    Finally, I’ve been using a program called Calibrated Peer Review for a number of years. It was designed for the natural sciences to facilitate writing in large classes. It used to be a free web-based application, but now they’ve moved to a site-license model (primarily to abide by student privacy laws). My university is purchasing a year as a trial, and I’m stoked. I love the old version and am crossing my fingers for even more functionality (bonus: the students grade each other and themselves, so the workload for faculty is the same whether there are 15 kids in the class or 500).

  13. c.l. ball May 23, 2011 at 1:36 pm #

    At the risk of redundancy, I find Blackboard to be a disaster, as was WebCT. The visual design is awful, none of the controls are intuitive, and it takes too damn long to do anything.

    One of my pet peeves with a lot of educational software is that it is really hard to see what your students see, so that even when everything seems to make sense from your end it doesn’t to a student who accesses the system.

    This is one of the more bizarre aspects of Blackboard. WebCT had one option like this, but it was removed in Blackboard.

  14. kathy May 23, 2011 at 10:37 pm #

    We use Desire 2 Learn at my institution and I find it pretty good at what it does. I am surprised no one else has mentioned it. We got rid of BB in favor of D2L and it is a big improvement.

  15. Matt_L May 25, 2011 at 9:21 am #

    Check out the posts over on Prof Hacker at the Chronicle of Higher Ed. They have a lot of great ideas for software inside and outside the class room. One tip I picked up there was using google docs for a collaborative class notes project. I’ve found that a lot of my students need to work on taking notes in class and on the readings so I have them work on a set of shared class notes. Each class meeting has a separate document. One student summarizes the main points of the class in one page, including key terms and definitions. Another student responds the next day by adding an excerpt from the class reading and explains how the quotation connects to one of the points made in the notes. Its a useful way to encourage students to revisit the ideas we discuss in class, and teaches them how to summarize the key points, but it does not turn them into a stenographer.

  16. Turadg Aleahmad January 15, 2012 at 12:08 am # sounds really handy for reminding students of their appointments.

    If you want to remind them of readings, homeworks and exams, try KeepUp.In. It works for any course at any school, on the web and mobile phone. Some courses at CMU have started using it:

    There may be some Georgetown courses up by now: