It’s “About the Humans”: Derek Bruff on Teaching with Intentional Tech

Derek BruffACUE sat down with Derek Bruff, director of the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching and Learning, to discuss his new book Intentional Tech: Principles to Guide the Use of Educational Technology in College Teaching. In this Q&A, Bruff shares favorite stories from the book, busts a common myth about digital natives, and argues that effective use of technology can’t happen without effective teaching practices.

Your new book tackles teaching with technology. Why did you decide to focus on this topic? 

As part of my job at a teaching center, I’m always meeting faculty and other instructors who are using technology in creative and effective ways to foster student learning. I’m always taken by stories of technology use that involve learning activities or outcomes that would be challenging or impossible without the tech. I’ve been collecting these kinds of stories for years, and I wanted to share those stories in a way that would inspire other educators to be intentional in their technology use.

You’ve written about the “surprisingly long conversations” you had with editors about the title. Why did you settle on Intentional Tech?

When new technologies enter the scene, we’re not always sure how to use them to support student learning. If there’s not some alignment between how we’re using the tech and our teaching and learning goals, it can become a distracting shiny object. My goal with the new book is to give readers some principles and practices they can use to be more intentional in their use of educational technology, thus the title, Intentional Tech.

It took a while to settle on the title because I’ve written a technology book that’s as much about the humans involved as it is about the tech. I share a lot of stories in the book, including stories from my own classroom and life, as well as stories of faculty in a variety of disciplines and teaching contexts. My editors and I had some rich conversations (over several months) about possible titles that would convey both the practical purpose and the narrative approach of the book, and we think Intentional Tech does the job.

Would you tell us a favorite story about how and why a faculty member is using a particular technology tool?

One of my favorite stories in the book is about Ashley Hasty. She uses a tool called VoiceThread to teach visual merchandising at Indiana University. She asks her students to work in groups and design window displays for local non-profits. Hasty asked her students to upload photos of their finished displays to VoiceThread and add audio annotations to explain their design.

The effect was revealing. Hasty learned why her students made the choices they did. In some cases, what looked like a poor design decision turned out to be the result of a constraint the client placed on the display. In other cases, students struggled to articulate why they had made particularly effective design choices; the technology forced a level of self-reflection that might not have otherwise occurred. These audio annotations allowed Hasty to be more responsive to her students’ learning needs through insights that weren’t self-evident in the final products.

I love this example because it’s a great match between technology and pedagogy. I learned about a tool I had never used in my own teaching, and I got to explore a discipline I don’t know much about. And I only learned about Hasty’s story because I posted an inquiry about creative uses of VoiceThread on Twitter and a mutual colleague connected us!

As you were researching and writing the book, was there anything that surprised you or challenged your thinking?

Something that challenged me was a realization I had while writing my chapter on multimodal assignments. When giving students nontraditional assignments like infographics or podcasts or digital stories, students usually need a lot of scaffolding. That is, they need assistance figuring out how to do the thing and what’s expected of them. This can mean having students submit proposals or drafts for feedback, analyzing finished products to reverse engineer how they’re put together, or helping to draft their own grading rubrics. These learning activities are just as important for more traditional assignments, because a lot of our students aren’t that experienced at writing research papers or giving presentations, either!

I think one of the advantages of exploring ways to use new technologies in our teaching is that we’re prompted to think more deeply about how and why our students learn, with or without technology. As my former Vanderbilt colleague, John Rakestraw, used to always say, “You can’t talk about teaching with technology without talking about teaching.”

You’re a big proponent of using concept maps and visualization tools—not just in your teaching and presentations, but also as a way to guide your writing for this book. Why do you think they’re effective and what advice or resources would you recommend for someone who wanted to learn more or start incorporating them into their work? 


One of the harder parts of learning something new is seeing the big picture. What ideas and concepts are more important? Which ones go together and how are they related? How do particular examples and applications slot into organizing categories and principles? These are hard questions to answer, whether you’re a first-year undergraduate learning chemistry or an author writing a new book.

Visualizing the big picture as you currently understand it can help you refine and enhance your mental map of that domain. That’s why concept maps, flow charts, timelines, sketch notes, and other visualization tools are useful in learning and in writing. In the book, I share the story of having students in my first-year writing seminar construct a debate map on the chalkboard exploring arguments about privacy and surveillance, along with other examples of using tools like Prezi to help students visualize their big-picture understanding. And when planning the book, I spent a lot of time at my whiteboard moving photos and Post-it notes around as a way to figure out what I wanted to say in the book and how I wanted to organize it.

To learn more about this kind of visual thinking, I recommend The Back of the Napkin by Dan Roam and The Sketchnote Handbook by Mike Rohde. Or read some of the visual thinking posts on my blog, Agile Learning.

One of the first times you spoke with us on the ACUE Community, you talked about a SoTL pet peeve—the myth of “learning styles.” Is there a common misconception around teaching with technology that you can dispel?


There’s been a persistent belief in the idea of a “digital native” since Marc Prensky coined the term back in 2001. This is the idea that people under a certain age, having grown up with the internet and smartphones and the like, are better at using technology and more inclined to do so than older people. There’s some truth to the idea, of course, which is why it’s caught on. If you started using an iPad regularly in sixth grade, then you’re going to be fairly comfortable using tablet technology when you hit college.

But the idea of a digital native also has some problems. For one thing, not all traditionally aged college students grew up surrounded by technology since technology is expensive and not all households have equal access. For another, a student who knows the ins and outs of Instagram isn’t necessarily going to be quick to learn geographic information systems or text encoding tools, for instance. There’s a learning curve for new technologies or for familiar technologies used in academic settings. Moreover, being comfortable using a particular tool doesn’t necessarily mean you’re able to think critically about how the tool works. And while we all know teenagers who seem to treat their smartphones like extra appendages, I’ve also known college students who opt out of digital technologies or prefer analog approaches for some tasks.

For all these reasons, the ways our students approach technology in their education varies widely, and that’s important to keep in mind as we plan our instruction. Our students will need assistance as they engage with technology, and the kinds of help they’ll need will be different for different students. And they will surprise us, perhaps by finding something challenging we didn’t expect, or by showing us how to use technology in a way we didn’t predict. And all of this is okay.

If there is one thing you’d want a reader to take away from reading Intentional Tech, what would it be? 

We often teach as we were taught, which is an understandable place to start, but we can’t stop there. We need to develop and expand our teaching skills throughout our careers. There are always new courses, new students, new technologies, and new teaching strategies to try. I would encourage readers to think of teaching as a creative act, one that requires a little risk-taking. Inspiration is important for creativity, and I hope that readers of Intentional Tech will be inspired to explore technologies that fit within their teaching contexts and help them meet their teaching goals. I know I’ve picked up a lot of ideas for my own classroom as I interviewed faculty for the book!

What to read next:

* Video: Derek Bruff Talks Visual Learning Tools

* Connecting the Dots: Visual Learning in an Election Year by Derek Bruff

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