Friday, January 14, 2011

Tech use in the classroom

Before the new year came in, one of my linguistics professors sent me (and other classmates) an email looking for some feedback.  The question was: 

How would you react as a teacher if your students texted, surfed the internet, or did other stuff on their computers during your class?

Given that my classmates all come from diverse backgrounds (some in Higher Education, some in K-12, others in Adult Education, and so on), the question is not that simple. I toyed with the idea of answering this before the new year, but seeing as I was on vacation I decided to make it a blog post for the new year :-)

So here's my answer: It all depends on context and what I expect from the students.  First of all, I think that in a Higher Education context, it's really unreasonable to expect students to not bring any technology into the classroom and to have all devices off (not silent, but off).  There are a number of comments in this InsideHigherEd story about faculty being very draconian about what they allow in their class.

For some classes, like Chemistry, Math and Physics, where formulas and graphs are involved, I would expect a pencil and a notebook (or drawing pad) to be good note taking implements (unless you've got one of those tablet computers that allows you to take handwritten notes). It's just the nature of the beast, putting formulas into a computer is a bit complex without pen input.  In coursework in the social sciences where notes are just text, computers might be better - depending of course on how quickly students can type versus how quickly they can write.

As an undergrad I took a lot of notes on paper for my math and logic courses. For my social science courses...not so much. As a grad student I often brought a computer to class and took notes. In those days we didn't have ubiquitous wifi on campus. In recent years, I've used my iphone to access PDFs and notes stored in the cloud when I've forgotten to bring an article to class (or when we were referencing something that we read weeks ago), I added things to my course to-do list (and synchronized right away to and yes, I texted every now and again.

I think that the internet does have a place in the classroom. Even if you don't believe in the 2 minute mental break of checking facebook (no one can sit still and attentive for straight 3 hours of class!), it's useful to look things up when you're in doubt.  Sure, you can ask the professor and derail the conversation or topic of discussion, but why not try looking it up yourself and if you still have questions, then you can ask!

At the end of the day, I think that in Higher Education, the instructor has the responsibility of:
  • making the class engaging so that students are not compelled to get onto facebook (or other services) and mindlessly surf
  • make it so that the class requires participation so you need to pay attention
  • recognize that technology is not the enemy - bad pedagogy is :-)
Now, if students don't participate, even thought you've provided ample opportunities for them to do so, then they should get a bad evaluation - it's a no brainer. If students who use technology (let's say they're on facebook and they're giggling at some stupid photo), then they are being disruptive to the rest of the class and that should not be allowed.

Something to think about: I've had classmates that never touched a piece of technology during course, but they were checked out (mentally) nonetheless. They ended up working on projects for other classes while in a different class. To the instructor these people may have seemed engaged, taking notes, and being really with it, when in reality nothing could be further from the truth.

So there you have it, that is my view on how I would react: let them use what they feel they need to use, we're all adults, and instructors should expect their learners to act like it.
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