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How baseball has helped me use technology in teaching and mentoring

Antonio Izzo - baseball fanGuest author – Antonio Izzo is an assistant professor in Biology and the Faculty Fellow for Technology

People often advise us to keep our work separate from our personal lives, but I think for many of us the two feed each other. Recently, I was reflecting on technology use in my academic life, and it occurred to me that many of the tools I use had been stolen from my life outside of academics. Coaching baseball has been my proving ground for learning the potential uses of various technology tools.

Baseball has always been tied to technology for me. As a kid I spent countless hours one summer taking player statistics off the back of baseball cards, entering them into a rudimentary early version of the Excel spreadsheet program, and using them to explore new ways of analyzing player statistics. While my analyses never changed the world of baseball, they did help me learn to use spreadsheets that are such an important part of my life as a scientist now.

In recent years, baseball has resurfaced in my life. My sons both love the game, and I have been fortunate to help coach their teams. As I returned to baseball, I continued to find ways to connect technology with the sport. The challenges of coaching and managing a team have many similarities to teaching a class, advising students, or running a research lab. The tools and skills that I developed in baseball, and the way I used them, therefore had the potential to influence my academic world as well.

Challenge 1 – provide useful and accessible information for the team

Sometimes we just need places to put information and resources. I have built websites for many of our teams, usually using something like Google Sites. Putting the material online is one thing, but making it easy for parents to find is another. Here at Elon we currently use the Moodle Learning Management System to share files with our students. Moodle is great for making resources available but just throwing materials online isn’t always enough. Based on my baseball experience, I invest a lot of time into careful organization of material to save the students and myself a lot of time in the long run.

Challenge 2 – communication about team matters

Getting information out to the team parents in a timely manner is important, especially when it involves a last minute change in game time or location. The cohort of my generation of parents is a funny mix of people who may or may not text, may or may not use Facebook, sometimes check their email, and, especially in my case, always seem to forget to charge their phones. Communicating effectively with a group of parents demands being capable with all of these communication forms and ultimately led me to upgrade my phone, get a data plan, and learn more about social media use. Luckily students seem to be a much more predictable group – practically everyone has a smartphone, and they are all skilled at using multiple forms of communication. Interestingly enough, there are still the same issues of communication since each student checks different communication resources at different frequencies. For Elon student clubs that I advise we have resorted to the old strategy of blanketing all the main communication forms to promote our events.

Challenge 3 – get people to a new field when a game is moved

This happens all the time in youth sports, and it can often lead to confusion for all team families. To solve this problem I learned how to use the “My Maps” feature of Google Maps to create an easy guide for parents to find any of the fields we might end up at. I have since used this tool with my research students to create a map of all of our Elon Forest research sites so that we can locate our sites easily each year.

Baseball image

Challenge 4 – make the most out of a small amount of practice time

With youth sports access to practice space is often limited. Reduced practice time makes it very challenging to get the team to improve over the course of season. We started posting YouTube instructional videos that were selected to teach the kids basic skills that we felt they needed to work on. We asked the kids to watch these videos and maybe even practice the concepts from the videos before they came to practice. Essentially we were ensuring that valuable practice time was engaged time. This is really similar to the classroom flipping approaches that many of us are starting to use for our courses. Most of my lab courses now require the students to watch pre-lab videos discussing techniques and concepts used in the lab – things I previously would have tried to cover at the start of lab. This allows them to get going right away with the hands-on work, which is really what a lab should be all about.

Challenge 5 – make the season schedule clear and accessible

If everyone knows immediately when the games and practices are, then we can get the highest attendance. Google calendars have helped with this process. For our baseball teams the calendar is accessible through mobile devices, and can be subscribed to. This means that changes get updated immediately on everyone’s devices. I use the same tool with my classes. Not every student chooses to subscribe to the calendars but those who have done so felt it was very helpful in keeping them organized.

Challenge 6 – coordinate who is bringing snacks to each game!

Yes, this may be perhaps the most important task in early youth sports –forgetting the snacks could lead to a full team meltdown. By using a collaborative Google Doc spreadsheet, all of the parents could access the snack list to add their names on the list. Collaborative tools have since become critical parts of my courses, advising, and research mentoring – all because my kids needed a sugar rush!

I think that for most of us who teach and mentor, we choose it as a lifestyle that doesn’t stop once we leave the classroom. Teaching fuels our personal lives – let’s not be afraid to acknowledge that our personal lives also greatly fuel our teaching in return.

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