Technology as Friend, not Foe!

Our faculty workshop last week discussed various active learning strategies to use in the classroom to better engage students in the learning process. One aspect of this discussion was thinking about the ways in which technology can support the work our students do in class and help them to understand and internalize course content better. (You can take a look at the presentation on our Faculty Workshops page to see the various resources and programs that were mentioned in this workshop.)

For many of us, especially in the arts and humanities, incorporating technology might not immediately seem in line with our course goals and objectives. Ironically, this view is very similar to the one that doesn’t immediately see a place for writing in the classroom when the topic does not traditionally focus on constructing prose e.g. STEM subjects. What this comparison should tell us is that there are multiple ways we can be biased about what activities enter our classroom but there is space for BOTH writing and technology, and each technique can be highly effective if employed in the correct way.

One reason technology has the potential to yield powerful results is that it uses skills our students already have to our advantage – they are on their phones or online for more hours a day than ever before, and bringing this context into the classroom can introduce a new way for them to interact with course content that is already familiar to them in other settings. In a lot of cases, our students are going to be more adept with technology than we are, so engaging them on this level also helps to rethink the instructor-student hierarchy and invite our students into a position of authority and expertise, hopefully giving them a boost of confidence which they can then directly apply to the task at hand.

Technology is also a real world tool that students will have to know how to use wherever they go after college. This means that as educators we have a responsibility to professionalize students in this area and make sure they understand how to best use technology to their advantage. Technology also expands the classroom in the sense that communication can now happen at any time and across any city or continent. Online platforms such as discussion boards, forums, blogs, or social media sites such as Twitter, extend conversations beyond class time so they may continue at home, and also extend to include a wider audience: students from different sections can discuss and compare materials, or they can communicate with other professionals in the field wherever they are situated, who would otherwise be out of reach without the internet.

All of that said, the use of technology has to be designed with specific educational goals in mind in order to be effective. In other words, just opening up your classroom to laptop and cellphone use is not going to magically yield better engagement levels and better test sources. In fact, it is likely to have the opposite effect: one study showed that, “When students have free rein to use their cellphones in class, they perform half a grade lower than when they don’t use their cellphones. (Cognitive psychologists explain these results as a product of divided attention and the myth of multitasking: that people think they can effectively pay attention to multiple stimuli at once.)”[1]

Rather, activities should be structured and have clear ground rules e.g. For an activity like Poll Everywhere (a web-based audience response system that allows people to respond to questions/a discussion on the web or via SMS texting on their phones), cell phone use would be allowed for whatever portion of class was going to use this program, but then restricted otherwise. You would need to be explicit about what kind of language is acceptable – non offensive, inclusive, discipline specific etc. – and give clear instructions on what form their answers should take. Poll Everywhere can be a great way to generate discussion at the beginning of class by asking a simple question about the homework/reading for that week and getting students to text in answers that are then displayed on the board via a projector for the rest of the class to see. This kind of multimedia learning greatly increases students’ retention of course material because it engages them on multiple levels, involves them in the act of “doing”, and makes it possible to encode into their memory using both visual and auditory information.

Remembering the need for nuance when we use technology in the classroom will help ensure success whenever we are introducing new strategies to structure discussions and deliver content.

[1] Taken from ‘Technology in the Classroom: What the Research Tells Us’. Web. Accessed 3/24/2019.

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