Reaching Students Where They Are: Teaching Family Science through Technology

By Kimberly Allen, Ph.D., BCC, CFLE
CFLE Network

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CFLE Perspectives is a regular Network column edited by Dr. Clara Gerhardt, CFLE, Professor in Human Development and Family Science at Samford University. In this article, Dr. Kimberly Allen, CFLE, shares her perspective about the use of technology in teaching.


“No Significant Learning Occurs without a Significant Relationship” - Dr. James Comer

Creating relationships with my students has always been a value and goal of my teaching career. When I started teaching, all of my students sat around me in a circle where we could use both verbal and non-verbal communication and plenty of activities to drive home the point of the lesson. Now, my students log onto our course room from all over the world, often at varying times of the day. Building relationships with my distance education students is a whole different ballgame, but one that is manageable through the use of technology in these teaching/learning experiences.

There are a few things worth knowing about our academic program.

  • We are fully online and applied.
  • We are graduate level only.
  • We serve students in youth development, family science, and community engagement.

Because of these realities, I have been intentional in using technology in my classes. My courses are based on the critical practices of building community, creating an inclusive environment that supports a fluid exchange of ideas, being very clear concerning expectations, being responsive to my students, and perhaps most importantly, creating a student-centered approach to learning. All through technology.   

Teaching with technology is not new to me, but initially I worried about two things. I wondered how to build relationships with my students, and how could I as a non-techie be successful at this?   I am that person some tech professionals refer to as a Beta tester, because I can mess up any technology; not exactly a vote of confidence.  

Importantly I learned that I did not have to be a technological wizard, which is really good news considering my poor luck with technology. A constructionist approach to teaching/learning means that I can utilize the expertise of those around me, including my students, fellow faculty, and university resources. This approach also facilitates a sense of community in my class, as we can all ask each other for support and suggestions in teaching/learning and in assignments. 

Today’s students want to add value to the world; creating meaningful assignments contributes to meeting that need.

Next I noticed very early on, that meaningful assignments are of great importance. Of course our students must learn how to write, do research, and practice ethical family life education practices. It turns out students value their time just as much as we as professors value ours. As Dr. Gallardo-Williams (2017) puts it: Today’s students want to add value to the world; creating meaningful assignments contributes to meeting that need. This is exciting; it could even forecast that the days of turning in assignments that merely get filed away and are never used again, are on the way out. Consequently, that also prevents busy work; those assignments students complain about doing and professors complain about grading.

For me, these applied online assignments always use technology. The rationale for using applied technology-based assignments is that they address the values that are critical for online (and I would argue face-to-face) teaching/learning. Let’s face it; this is also where we find families. Increasingly, parents are getting their parenting information online, the youth is watching videos to help make sense of the world, and family life issues are being addressed on websites, via social media, and through numerous additional technologies. I want my students to make an impact; now!  By meeting families where they are at any given point, and reaching them through technology-based assignments, we can be impactful.

How can we teach and learn through technology-based, real-world assignments?  Below is a sampling of three student assignments from my courses.

In my Family Life Education and Parenting course, I use a scaffolding approach to help students create online educational videos. They start with interviewing a parent or family member in their community and identify a family life issue. They then research peer-reviewed literature to find possible evidence-based solutions to that particular concern. Once they can share research-based information, they create a video that answers the parent’s question(s) or provides suggested solutions to the situation. Note that I have done other iterations where they have used other technologies, such as social media or infographics to answer the question. This assignment provides students familiarity with a variety of online platforms for family life education. At the end of the course, students implement an evidenced-based curriculum in their community or via an online technology.

In my Applied Concepts in Youth Development course, students work in teams on a family life or youth development topic of their choice while addressing a current topic. Like all of my assignments, students have to first research their topic, and then create an educational resource that answers a specific concern, such as intimate partner violence or girls in STEM education. Students work in groups to create an outline that is peer-reviewed.  Based on those comments, students create a technology-based resource that is open to the public. We have had students create websites, educational videos, and developed an app. All projects include a social media campaign to help promote their resource.

I want my students to make an impact; now! By meeting families where they are at any given point, we can be impactful.

In my Family Communication and Coaching course, students write an APA format research paper and then translate the research into a lay-friendly educational resource to share via a technology of their choice. Students have blogged about the importance of healthy relationships, created social media campaigns promoting positive interpersonal communication, and have created info graphics for couples providing strategies to improve their relationships.

In all technology-based assignments, students are encouraged to partner with community organizations to share their resources in real life contexts.  I also provide platforms for students to host their content with professional organizations such as Family Life Coaching Association or Cooperative Extension. These technology-based products promote promising practices and provide students skills and credit for purposeful assignments. Many see their work on national platforms, and can use those experiences to support job promotion and real-life skill development. Using non-disposable assignments allows me to partner with students to grow program interests, and the collaborative process fosters a sense of personal accomplishment and builds a personal relationship. Additionally we do a tremendous amount of work with social media, but we can save that topic for another day.

Jumping into teaching online and using technology to educate our students may not be something that happens everywhere or all the time, but it is something others will hopefully consider. A leader of a graduate school commented that online teaching/learning could never replace the relationships created in brick and mortar classrooms. I beg to differ (and told him so). We see technology changing the way parents engage with their teens, the way military families engage with their deployed partners; the way students engage with each other.

The key to success in teaching and learning through technology is by incorporating our teaching/learning values and remembering that it takes a village. Engagement is of key importance.  Today’s students feel engaged when they can work collaboratively to create meaningful work that can be shared with the public in real life contexts. I have seen first-hand how these assignments can and do assist with building relationships with fellow students and professors.  


Kimberly Allen, Ph.D., BCC, CFLE, is Associate Professor and Extension Specialist and Director of Graduate Programs, Youth, Family, and Community Sciences in the Department of Agricultural and Human Sciences at North Carolina State University.


Further Reading:

Allen, K. (2016). Constructivist view of teaching: A constructivist view of teaching (AKA: If I can do it, anyone can!). DELTAwire. Available from

Baran, E., Correia, A., and Thompson, A. (November, 2011). Transforming online teaching practice: critical analysis of the literature on the roles and competencies of online teachers. Distance Education. 32 (3): 421 - 439.

Bart, M. (February 8, 2010). A Checklist for Facilitating Online Courses. Faculty Focus: Higher Ed Teaching Strategies from Magna Publications. Retrieved from

Gallardo-Williams, M. (August, 2017). Students as creators: non-disposable assignments. Distance Education and Learning Technology Applications summer conference, Raleigh, NC.

Wei, C.; Chen, N.; Kinshuk (February, 2012). A model for social presence in online classrooms. Educational Technology Research & Development.

Wiest, L. (2012). Effective online instruction in higher education. The Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 13 (1): 11 - 14.