Using Technology Purposefully

Learning is seen as essentially a social process, requiring communication among learner, teacher, and others. This social process cannot effectively be replaced by technology, although technology may facilitate it. (Bates & Poole, 2003, p. 35)

To assist those who use technology in the classroom, literally hundreds of books, articles, and internet sites have been created. Many of these resources focus on the principle that technology is only as effective as its use in the classroom. In other words, we should use technology “at the right time, in the right way, and for the right purpose,” (Lever-Duffy & McDonald, 2008, p.1). By following educational theory and practice, technology can have more purpose and help generate more positive outcomes.

Technology Terminology

Over the years, several terms have been used in educational settings in reference to technology. The word “technology” can adopt different meanings for different people, and technology can be subject- or domain-specific such as “engineering technology,” “instructional technology,” or chemical technology.” To help clarify and better understand various “technology” terms, here are some definitions.

The word technology can take on different meanings for different people

Technology can be a process, such as systematically designing a class session, editing a video for a podcast, or engineering the design and production of a product. On the other hand, technology can refer to the physical tools used for instruction and learning, such as PowerPoint presentations, clickers, white boards, and computer hardware. Technology tools can also refer to books (both paper and electronic), musical instruments, 3-D models, mathematical formulae, statistical notation, and computer software. Even pens, pencils, and sticky notes are a form of technology. Finally, computer software, virtual technologies, and the internet (in the sense of its use) are forms of non-material technology tools.

Technology can be a process … [or] can refer to the physical tools used for instruction and learning

Instructional/Educational Technology is specifically selected “hardware, software [tools], and/or processes [crafts] to facilitate learning” (Smaldino, Lowther, & Russell, 2008, p. 371).

Information Technology represents “anything related to computing technology, such as networking, hardware, software, the Internet, or the people that work with these technologies” (Christensson, 2006).

With all of these different definitions of “technology,” what are we discussing when we talk about using technology in the classroom? Ultimately, what most of us mean when we refer to teaching with technology is “digital devices and platforms: apps that run on smartphones, audio and video media, social media, web-based systems for reviewing and practicing course concepts,” etc. (Miller, 2019, n.p.).

Technology and Instruction

Using technology meaningfully and purposefully in your classes requires you to ask yourself a few questions about why you want to use technology and what purpose it will serve. The following questions will help guide your adoption of technology in the classroom:

  • What is the technology for? Is it for a course or a set of courses? A module? A particular activity? Thoughtful technology choices aren’t generic—they’re wedded to a specific discipline and course, and even to specific areas within a course.
  • What are your learning objectives and outcomes? Successful tech choices are, above all, goal-focused. You’ll need to have your course goals and priorities at hand as you consider your technology options.
  • What are the hardest, or most failure-prone, aspects of what you’re teaching? Make a list of the pinch points—material that students repeatedly stumble over or just find boring; concepts that you find yourself having to reteach, time and again. Think about all of those moments when you get a bad feeling that students are leaving your course unprepared for the next one. (Miller, 2019, n.p.)

As Miller (2019) explains about the last bullet-pointed item above, you must use technology with “tangible benefits,” and technology “has the best chance of [providing those benefits] when it targets the hardest or most time-consuming aspects of a course.”

Don’t use technology just for the sake of using technology or because it’s easy or fun. Instead, use technology to “focus on your biggest teaching problems,” i.e. focusing on the “bottlenecks” or “pinch-points” in student comprehension or performance; use backward design to identify learning objectives and create lessons and activities using tech that align with those objectives; or use tech tools to help reinforce thinking skills or practical application in an interactive way (Miller, 2019).

Technology Support

Selecting and using appropriate technology can be of benefit to both you and your students. Being familiar with selected technologies allows you to integrate technology seamlessly into your teaching and students’ learning. There are times, however, when new technologies necessitate the need for training and times when the technologies do not function as planned. Various campus support units are available to assist everyone involved in learning new technologies and their effective integration in the classroom.

Selecting and using appropriate technology has been shown to benefit both the instructor and his or her students.

Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning (CITL)

  • Offers monthly and other special workshops on a wide range of selected technologies and on processes to facilitate learning.
  • Provides consultations, guidance, tips, and techniques for best practice in technology-supported teaching activities.

Division of Information Technology (DoIT)

  • Provides technical assistance in campus-wide technologies such as Blackboard, clickers, smart classrooms, internet, and communications (email and telephone).
  • Provides a wide variety of media production and technical support services including video, audio, graphics, and photography production; video and audio facility design and installation; Smart Classroom and mediated facility design and support; and live, real-time video streaming.

Considerations When Using Technology

Ease of Access

Ask yourself, “Are all students equally able to access and utilize all forms of technology in the classroom?” What alternative strategies will be employed to accommodate those students who do not have personal access to a computer? Where could you point these students to resources for accessing your instructional technology?

Disabilities and Equal Access

While developing instruction involving technology, you must consider students with disabilities. For example, when using projected technology such as PowerPoint, pay attention to document length, design considerations, automated functions, text presentation, tone and articulation of voice, speed at which information is presented, captioning of video clips, and availability of course material in multiple modes. Always consider whether your tech tools are accessible to students with disabilities; it’s the law in Illinois: “The Illinois Information Technology Accessibility Act (IITAA) requires Illinois agencies and universities to ensure that their web sites, information systems, and information technologies are accessible to people with disabilities” (Illinois Department of Human Services, n.d.).

While developing instruction involving technology, you must consider students with disabilities.

Ethical Considerations

Technology allows for information to be accessed quickly and communication to flow instantly. Technological communication is available at the click of a button, which could lead to carelessness, misunderstanding, or resentment if not used thoughtfully and appropriately. Communicating a message via technology can easily be misinterpreted and may not be appropriate for the audience. Quickly typed and unedited email messages, poorly designed PowerPoint presentations, the use of certain words and phrases, or the use of bold typeface or all capital letters can lead to miscommunication. Care must be taken to ensure that the intended message is appropriately delivered (and received).

Where to Begin

Here are some ways to help you integrate technology in your teaching:

  1. Start small, using those technologies with which you are familiar, that are readily available to integrate in your teaching, and that will help you meet course, unit, or lesson objectives. Don’t use technology just to use it.
  2. Discuss with colleagues their use of technology in the classroom and observe your colleagues’ teaching if possible, which will help you decide how you want to incorporate technology in your own classes.
  3. Assess your current teaching practices for currency and effectiveness; consider how course content would be affected by the integration of technology. Which course content would be best served by the introduction of technology? How would technology enhance and improve your students’ learning?
  4. Learn how to integrate technology in your teaching effectively by following an intentional approach to instructional design and integration of technology (the Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center offers workshops on course design, instructional technology, and other teaching topics).


Technology has made significant changes in the way we teach. Classrooms will continue to draw on common pedagogical practices, but the role of the instructor will inevitably grow and change as new technologies emerge and become ubiquitous. Careful planning along with continued training and acceptance of new technologies will assist you as you continue to improve your teaching and learning experiences. Technology is not an end in itself but a tool to help us enrich student learning and meet course and programmatic goals and objectives.


Bates, A. W., and Poole, G. (2003). Effective teaching with technology in higher education: Foundations for success. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Christensson, P. (2006). IT. Retrieved from

Illinois Department of Human Services. Illinois information technology accessibility act (IITAA). Retrieved from

Lever-Duffy, J., & McDonald, J. B. (2008). Teaching and learning with technology. (3rd ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.

Miller, M. (2019). How to make smart choices about tech for your course. Retrieved from

Smaldino, S. E., Lowther, D. L., & Russell, J. D. (2008). Instructional technology and media for learning. (9th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Suggested citation

Northern Illinois University Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning. (2020). Using technology purposefully. In Instructional guide for university faculty and teaching assistants. Retrieved from

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