The down-side of technology? – On class time

Considering the distractions in which students indulge while in class, many of which involve smartphones and laptops: what’s the answer to dealing with a situation where students are more engaged with their friends online than with others in the same room? How different is this from the distractions of the past, before iPhone and Blackberry? Is this about technology, teaching, both or neither? And how should we deal with it “in the moment”, in the classroom? Here is the original link, from October 13, 2010: The down-side of technology? – On class time.

I want to raise a topic that of course has no easy answers, but which has been coming up quite a bit recently in my job as a teaching assistant for a lecture class of about 100 students. I know many others have discussed this too, so I’m just adding another thread to the long conversation.

Last week in class–in the lecture right before the tutorial I teach–I sat in the back row, as is now my habit, and a fellow TA sat next to me. In the second half of this particular class there was a film being shown. During the film, some students chatted, other used their computers to look at Facebook or other popular sites, and/or to chat online with friends (this they do every class), and hardly any of them took notes even though the film’s content will be on the exam. From where we were seated, we could also see many students thoroughly tuned in to their mobile devices (Blackberrys, iPhones etc.).

The main reason that we were paying attention to this is that the instructor had asked the students not to use Facebook during lecture. Her reasoning, simplified, is that while it’s more or less each student’s personal choice whether or not to engage with the class (student responsibility), other students might be distracted by your Facebooking activity–so it is about respect for one’s classmates, as well.

However, this logic has failed; in our class, it’s not unusual to see students wearing their ear buds during lecture and watching videos on their laptops.

After last week’s class we (the course director and TAs) had a discussion over email about how to handle the students’ use of these technologies in the classroom. The question is both a pedagogical and a pragmatic one: what model of learning underlies our reaction to the students’ “offtask behaviour“, what will the reaction be? What is the next step forward from the argument about “respect” (such a painful position to abandon)?

To me this is not really an issue about the technology per se. After all, when students had only a pen and paper they could still indulge in the habits of doodling or daydreaming or writing and passing notes (as pointed out by this author). In our class, private conversations happen during lecture and there is laughter at inappropriate moments, showing that students either weren’t listening or didn’t care about what was being said. It’s not that new technologies create rudeness or boredom; they just hugely expand the range of distractions in which students can engage, and they do it in a way that’s difficult to censure explicitly (you can’t take away a student’s mobile phone).

Not only is technology not the only “culprit”–it’s also not the case that all students who use Facebook or surf the web are “tuned out” of class; they may be looking up something related to the course, for example, or otherwise using technology to add to their learning experience. Pedagogically, there are many ways for instructors to make use of technology in the classroom–but I think it can only happen when students are already interested and motivated, and keen to interact in class.

A well-known example is that of a professor in the United States who collaborated with a class to create this video, one in which certain relevant points about technology and education are conveniently highlighted–even as students are engaging actively in the solution to their own problems (more info and discussion here). The video “went viral” on YouTube–providing a great demonstration of students and faculty engaging with the world “beyond” the university and doing it through making their own media content.

How can we create this kind of engagement, which has to come from students, not just from professors? How do we convey the “rules of the game”, which require student participation, without being forceful, pedantic or dictatorial, without fostering resentment? It seems strange to ask students to participate in their own education.

I’m still a student myself–and I know I need to bring something to the educational equation (interest, energy, effort, attention, a desire to learn, a degree of self-discipline) or the result will be negative. There must be a balance of responsibility, between what the professor or teacher does–what the university provides–and what students need to do for themselves. Consumerist attitudes towards education (encouraged by high tuition fees) and the imperative to “edutainment” are skewing this balance as a marketised, customer-service model becomes more the norm at universities; yet so often in the past it has been slumped too far towards the weighty dictates of the institution alone.

As someone teaching–even as a lowly tutorial leader–my observation is that practices of “dealing with” changing student attitudes often happens through a kind of informed yet haphazard, everyday decision-making, through experiential negotiation of the common ground shared by ethics and praxis, driven by a need to act in the immediate present, to be proficient at teaching in a classroom. The loss of students’ attention feels like failure of a kind, but what does one have to do in order to “succeed”?

And so to return to the immediate problem, what should my colleagues and I do about our “classroom management” troubles? Should technology such as laptops or wireless Internet access be banned outright from the classroom? Such tactics feel paternalistic. Are there other ways of working with students to create a better environment for interaction and learning, such as making rules and setting parameters? What about when students don’t want to work–how do we walk the peculiar line between exercising “authority” and asking people to exercise authority over themselves?

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