It’s common for students to bring laptops, tablets, and smartphones to class. But are the devices distractions or learning tools? Standing at the lectern, it’s difficult for a professor to tell whether students are using their mobile devices to access learning materials or to just idly browse the Internet, wasting precious classroom time and distracting their peers.
As a manager of instructional technology, I’ve observed courses that had anywhere from 40 to 100 students. Sitting in the back of the classroom provides an interesting perspective of students’ computer screens. In one instance, I was pleasantly surprised to find that all but one of the 100 students were viewing downloaded lecture notes, the course’s Learning Management System or a Word document. Pretty impressive!
These observations support the notion that computers in the classroom can be used supplement learning. But how, exactly, do computers aid in instruction? Engaged students use the opportunity to make additions and annotations, to downloaded slides or to transcribe the lecture using word-processing programs. The problem, of course, is that not every student is that engaged.
A Distraction or an Opportunity: It’s the Professor’s Call
One downside of technology in the classroom is that it’s more difficult to get students’ to turn away from their computers to participate in discussion. Technology is not always a distraction in the classroom, but hiding behind computer screens can lead to minimal interaction with professors during lectures. If you want dynamic discussion and interaction with students, ask them to close their laptops.
Alternatively, technology can be leveraged to benefit both the professor and the students. Introverted students, for example, may find it easier to participate in class if they can do so via SMS, email or instant message. Incorporating tools such as polling technology and back-channel blogs encourages participation with the computers students are already using. These tools allow students to participate anonymously and contribute to the class without feeling cornered or spotlighted. Conducting lessons with anonymous participation, however, means we need to rethink traditional participation grades. This is just one item on a long list of disruptions that are changing traditional higher education.
Students are going to use mobile devices and computers in the classroom, regardless of the professor’s level of comfort with technology. It’s best to embrace the technology and work with your educational technologist or instructional designer to determine the best tools and methodologies to enhance your course with technology and support the course objectives.