Beyond the Essay: App-Smashing in the Humanities Classroom

Here is the text for my App-Smashing presentation at Eastern TN State University’s inaugural Conference for High-Impact Instructional Practices (CHIIPs), Mon, Jan. 8, 2018 in Johnson City, TN.

Link to my slideshow in Google Slides:

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What is App-Smashing?

Many online and face-to-face teachers are stuck in the rut of asking students to read then write about what they have read. In this hands-on session, we will explore the art of app-smashing: simply, combining two or more different programs to create an enriching and captivating learning experience for both the student and the teacher. We will explore several Web 2.0 programs and a few iPad programs to elucidate this idea of app-smashing.

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App-smashing is centered upon student creativity and asks students to not only learn vital new digital literacy skills, but combine these skills in a way that appeals to them personally and ignites their curiosity. In this session, I will highlight several assignments that pivot on students combining personal interests with course content, all in an attempt to move beyond the traditional essay format and create significant personal learning experiences for my students.

Today you will learn a few of the quickest and easiest programs to seamlessly implement into your face-to-face and/or online classrooms. Even though this is a “humanities” session, many of these programs and techniques can be used in any classroom, STEM or humanities. You will learn some specific digital assignment ideas, and step-by-step methods to create unique assignments for your students.

Recipes for App-Smashing

App-smashing is usually comprised of 1) creating a unique artifact (using creative programs like Tellagami, ThingLink, Storify, Voyant), then 2) presenting that artifact (using screencasting programs like ShowMe, Jing, or Screencast-o-Matic). Sometimes you can add in a third step: 1) take a picture and use a program like Over to edit and write text over the picture; 2) import that picture into a program like Tellagami (as a background) or ThingLink, then 3) present using screencasting. These are the essential “recipes” when app-smashing. And don’t worry; we’re going to go slow and break it down for you from here.

Warning: don’t just use technology for the sake of using technology. Instead, ask yourself: what are you trying to accomplish in your class? What pedagogical problem are you trying to solve? There’s an app for that! First, think of the task you want to perform, THEN find the app. Dr. Ruben Puentedura’s SAMR model (Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, then Redefinition). (Link to YouTube video: You want your tech to hit that final level of Redefinition, doing something in your classroom that would have been impossible to do without the technology, or using technology to solve or illuminate a tricky problem or concept in your classroom.

Start with the basic Create + Present formula when beginning your app-smash. What can you make, then what program can you use to present it in a new way? What programs lend themselves to visual compilations: timelines? Historical or current events? Processes? Places?

Recipe One: create a picture collage using PicCollage ( then present using Tellagami ( Note that you need to purchase the extended edition of Tellagami to record longer than 30 seconds, and it is currently just an app that you need a mobile device to use. The short 30 second version is useful for recording oral announcements for your online classes, to change up the written format. One assignment idea would be to ask students to choose a historical event or location that pertains to the literature we are reading that week, create a picture collage of the event, then highlight the most important things to know (pertaining to the literature) in 30 seconds. In this instance, the short time frame would force the students to be succinct, a skill that is useful for ALL of us to practice! If you had a longer time frame, when teaching On the Road, students could travel to the places in the book, take pictures and edit them using PicCollage or Over, then create a Tellagami avatar and record a “tour” of these places, explaining their importance both in the current cultural moment and in the narrative.

Example: Here is a link to an example Tellagami video:

Recipe two: Create a picture in ThingLink (, then import into Explain Everything ( via iPad or iPhone) or Screencast-o-matic ( (screencasting using computer). This recipe employs only desktop / internet applications, in case students don’t have access to iPads or iPhones. I used ThingLink to import a picture of Virginia Woolf and her father, then added three links to outside sources. Note: the free version of TL is extremely slim, so the $35 full version may be worth purchasing if you decide to employ it in your classroom. I then recorded my thoughts about the ThingLink artifact using the free screencasting software Screencast-o-matic, which I like because it allows you to show your screen and your face at the same time. This app-smashing recipe in particular would lend itself well to exploring an author, a historical event, or an important place or setting. Students would be required to place at least five links then record their explanation; students could then post on Google Drive and respond to each other there, or students could present their ThingLink in class followed by an in-class discussion. Students have used this program to, for one example, explain the normative mores of Victorian England by showcasing a photograph of a Victorian family then tagging  it to go over dress, familial relationships, race, class, jobs and employment, health, etc.


Example assignment: I offer my upper-division students a “grab bag” of five different assignments, then allow them to choose which they would like to complete. Here is the text of that assignment:

Mini-Projects (2): There are three opportunities in the syllabus to submit TWO projects. Choose from a “grab bag” of digital projects to analyze 1-2 books. I highly recommend you push yourself and try something you’ve never tried before. Each project must be highly polished and reflect about 5-10 hours of work. Each project must also employ “app-smashing,” or using two different digital programs. Projects will be shared with the class via Padlet. Example projects include:

  • Analyze the book(s) using Voyant (see more on this program below); record your explication using Screencast-o-Matic
  • Put together a ThingLink; record your explication using Screencast-0-Matic. Example:
  • Design a picture background using PicCollage; use it as a background for a Tellagami recording; create several and edit into one long movie using iMovie ( An example Tellagami:
  • Perform a close-reading of a passage using ShowMe (mark up the page using PicCollage prior to recording); explicate using ShowMe or ExplainEverything
  • Create an infographic using Easelly (; more on this program below); record explication using Screencast
  • Make your own comic strip using Toon Doo or Comic Life (more below, including links); record explication using Screencast
  • Make your own digital book (either a sequal or re-tell the ending) using Book Creator (; record explication using Jing
  • Have another favorite app or program? Run it by me first!

Even more programs to consider! Image result for want more

Voyant (– creating Word Clouds. Assignment idea: one student made a word cloud of each different book in Paradise Lost, then analyzed the themes, motifs, and the essential “thrust” of each book using these Word Clouds.

Storify ( – creating a digital “story” based on pop culture artifacts, then “curating” these artifacts. For my Appalachian Film and Literature course, I ask students to google “hillbilly” or “Appalachia” and then create a Storify based on what they find. This is a good stand-alone project, or they could turn it into app-smashing by curating orally vs. in writing.

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Jing ( (for Web 2.0 Oral Presentations) – Just like Screencast, this is a presentation program. It is limited to 5 minutes, but the bonus is, you can share your presentation using just a quick link. You can only record your computer screen. In my courses, I use this program for my oral presentation assignment. For example, in my capstone senior-level class, students create slides on what it means to live a balanced or meaningful life then record their narration of them. A quick five minute video also makes for a good discussion post. Anything you can have your students write about or explore in the world, they can transmute into a video.

ShowMe ( (my digital close-reading assignment) – This project is a close reading project in which you will use a Web 2.0 application to record an oral close reading of a text. Choose one passage or paragraph from a fictional text assigned in this class. Mark up the text, circling important images or symbols, underlining key words or phrases, etc. Then, record an approximately five minute video showing your selected passage while you orally explicate it. I suggest you use the program “ShowMe” to complete this task (available for free download on the iTunes store), but this requires the use of an iPad or an iPhone. If you do not have access to this technology, you can record your explication using a program like Jing or Screencast-o-Matic, then upload to YouTube. Once you are finished with your recording and are satisfied with its content, please post the html link in a new discussion post. ( ) – create all kinds of infographics (fun and interesting ones!)

Explain Everything ( – an interactive whiteboard app that turns your iPad into a whiteboard and, through wireless mirroring, you can sync to the projector/screen for the class to see. “New picture” and “new video” features allow you to take pictures of student work and instantly annotate, like  Image Capture software.

Padlet (– a virtual collage-making, collaborative app that can be embedded in any Learning Management System (LMS). One professor had the great idea of building a repository of helpful explanatory videos, created by students, that future students can watch to ensure they have the basic knowledge for the class in question

ToonDoo ( or StripCreator (– make your own comic strip

Finding more apps for App-Smashing:

Design a new assignment to integrate into your class this semester

Thinking of everything we have just covered, spend a few minutes trying to come up with one app-smashing project you could create and incorporate this semester (remember: start small!). Then partner up and share what you came up with.

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Links and Resources: 

Assignments as Controversies: Digital Literacy and Writing in Classroom Practice (Ibrar Bhatt, 2017)

Handbook of Research on Educational Technology Integration and Active Learning (ed. Jared Keengwe, 2015)

Digital and Media Literacy: Connecting Culture and Classroom (Renee Hobbs, 2011)

Teaching students transferable digital skills:

“Analyze a Digital Assignment” worksheet:

Example of student Digital Storytelling project:

A 17 min screencast on Digital Pedagogy in the Writing classroom:–vvmUPXj8c&

Attend a THATCamp – – Humanities and Technology Camp

Attend the Digital Pedagogy Lab 2018 in (somewhat) nearby Fredricksburg, VA: 

Best practices for app-smashing:

  1. Clearly spell out what you would like the students to accomplish, what they will learn (learning goals or learning outcomes), and/or why they are doing this project, how much time you want them to put into it, and what the final outcome should be.
  2. Fit the learning goals into the larger goals of your department somehow
  3. Create step by step instructions. Break a larger project down into smaller, manageable steps.
  4. Devote the last two weeks of class to the project (if it is a large one)
  5. Remember that collaboration, creativity and conversation are the three most important aspects of digital projects
  6. Show examples if at all possible but also…
  7. Relinquish control. Let your students go wild—within reason.
  8. Commit to taking a risk – be comfortable with being uncomfortable. It’s okay that all of you won’t exactly know what you are doing. You’ll learn together! (taken from Katharine D. Harris,
  9. Think about, as Brian Croxall puts it, “transferable digital skills” ( What can you teach students that will be useful to them no matter what their major or professional trajectory?

Assessing digital work:

  1. Think about if you want grade to be completion or not
  2. If you have broken a larger task into a series of smaller tasks, each with a due date, it will be easier to grade the whole project in parts
  3. Ask the students to help you come up with a grading rubric. How much of the grade should correspond to “creativity,” for example, and how much should correspond to the proper citing of sources, or the overall effect of the project?

Getting started (from Spiro, and

  1. What are you motivated by? What questions do you want to solve? (Spiro,
  2. How can you visualize an underrepresented figure, event, place, novel, idea, etc?
  3. How can you not just show data, but manipulate it?
  4. How can you increase your student’s learning and interest in a text, time period, historical event, or author while broadening access through an online portal that can be visited by students all over the world?
  5. In short, how can what we do in the classroom be useful to the worldwide community outside the classroom?
  6. These kinds of real, in-the-moment digital projects that have students doing useful work that is posted online and not just a paper that is thrown away after writing have the potential to revitalize the humanities, teaching students the importance of rigorous scholarship, the ability to analyze history, texts and culture, use innovative new programs and methods, and engage with a worldwide audience.


  1. Don’t try to do everything at once. Don’t get overwhelmed. Try one new thing this next semester, and build on that. Have each class work on a small aspect of one larger project
  2. Devote each year of teaching to one new tool (use to find new text visualization tools)
  3. During the summer, research one new online digital tool using a source like a DH blog (, so that you are on top of what is going on and can participate in the conversation
  4. Be okay with not exactly knowing what you’re doing
  5. Explore new tools with your students together
  6. Consider keeping an app-smashing assignment in your back pocket, so to speak, to use on a snow day or when you need to travel for a conference (therefore somewhat flipping your classroom)Image result for have fun

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