Oct 282012
 

Last week I was at the Clickers 2012 Conference where there was much discussion about whether faculty are okay with students using web-enabled devices (smartphones, laptops, tablets, etc.) during class.

I was surprised, although I shouldn’t have been, that many faculty ban their use outright. The emotion around this issue runs high. Ask your colleagues “what’s your policy regarding cellphones in class?” Watch how quickly they heat up. At this conference, one person noted that his colleague kicks students out of class if they are spotted using a smartphone.

I have never been a big fan of abstinence-only education; I believe in teaching safe tech.

The psychological literature is rife with studies demonstrating the general ineffectiveness of punishment. Punishment generally doesn’t stop the behavior. We just get better at avoiding punishment. Have you ever gotten a speeding ticket? Did it stop you from speeding? Of course not. You just got better at not getting caught. You slow down through that section of highway since you know that’s where police are likely to hide, speeding up as soon as you’re past it. Perhaps you’re also more vigilant for police. There is an exception. Punishment can be effective if it is severe enough. If police could shoot you on the spot for speeding, it’s unlikely that you’d ever speed. But who wants to live in that society?

Yes, students have been chastised in the past for using smartphones in class or using laptops to do “unauthorized” things, like viewing Facebook. Have students stopped? Of course not. They have, however, gotten much better at not getting caught. Ask your students to anonymously report whether they have, in the last week, used their web-enabled devices to access content that is unrelated to your course during your course. The (high) numbers might surprise you.

At the same time, the research on multitasking is clear. Our attention can really only be in one place at a time. While we can switch back and forth quickly, we lose information during the switch. If you want to get some serious work done, close your email program. When you switch from that work to your email and then back to your work, it takes some time to regain your train of thought. An hour spent on task and an hour spent on email is much better than switching back and forth every few minutes. If you do the latter, it’s going to take you much longer than two hours to do the same work.

Students need to understand this, because our mobile technology is not going away. Even if an instructor implements harsh penalties for unauthorized tech use during class with classroom sentinels to monitor behavior, that will not impact what the students do in other courses or, after graduation, on the job.

Some of you remember when the internet was born. During its early childhood, we tried to help students manage the information they were accessing. Students were advised that .com websites should be viewed much more cautiously than .org websites. That advice seems quaint now. Over time we have morphed into teaching a more complex “information literacy.”

“Technological literacy” is in its infancy. The question should not be whether to allow students to use technology during class. Rather we should be asking, “What should we be doing to help students understand not only how to use technology, but also how to use it appropriately?”

I talk with my students about the multitasking literature. Most students know that when they are paying attention to something other than me, they’re not paying attention to me. I give the example of trying to talk on the phone while watching TV. You either lose track of what’s happening on the TV, or you lose track of what the person on the phone is saying. The classroom is no different.

To really drive the point home, I show this one-minute video (watch the video below). (If you want to read more about this concept, it’s called “inattentional blindness”; also see “change blindness”.)

We also need to help students learn how to stay focused, to resist being distracted. For example, explain the value of “deep processing”. When students take notes on a laptop, they are more likely to try to transcribe what the instructor is saying rather than “process” it into their own words. That’s akin to reading without thinking about what is being read. Suggest that students work to connect what they are learning to what they already know or what they are learning in their other courses.

It’s easy to blame technology for a student’s lack of attention. It’s hard for an instructor to compete with everything that’s on the internet, an internet that a student holds in the palm of their hand. And we can see that student holding that phone so it feels actionable. If I tell the student to put away the phone the student will then pay attention to me. Keep in mind that those of us who were students before the internet found plenty of ways to be distracted during class. While instructors want students to pay attention during class, we’ll settle for having students who look like they’re paying attention?

Or we could help students understand the impact of distraction on their learning, and help them learn what they need to do to maintain focus.

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