Author: Itiya Aneece, PhD student in Environmental Sciences and Tomorrow’s Professor Today Alumna
With the increase in the use of technology for entertainment, personal correspondence, and academics, it’s important to reflect on how this technology influences student learning. In this age of fast-paced delivery of poorly-filtered information, there is potential for digital media to inhibit learning by reducing attention spans, distracting learners, and presenting misinformation at the same level of trustworthiness as well-founded information. Therefore, it is important to think about how this technology can be used to facilitate learning inside and outside the classroom while avoiding pitfalls.
When laptops are allowed in class, students can be tempted to use them for things other than academics such as social media, email, and videos. These are temptations that not only distract learning in the moment but also develop a habit of short attention spans and unproductive multitasking. Such distracted multitasking is often encouraged with the demand to be ever-present online and respond to emails instantaneously, a problem for professors and teaching assistants as well as for students. These distractions are accessible now more than ever through the prevalence of smartphones, with the additional distraction of texting. Not only can these devices distract the student using them but they can also distract surrounding students who can see the screens. They can also be used to aid cheating in the classroom. To minimize misuse of computers and cellphones in class, the professor/ teacher can walk around the classroom a few times throughout the class; this is acceptable for small classes but impossible in lecture halls where the best way might be a no-tolerance policy. They can add cellphone and laptop use expectations in the policies document and have students sign them either under an honor code or an agreed list of repercussions.
Outside the classroom, distractions while using technology can make studying and doing homework more challenging and time-consuming. This is something students should realize when developing study habits, which can be encouraged by professors and teaching assistants by sharing the implications of these behaviors on students’ time-management and work quality.
Yet another potential danger of using technology is that it allows greater access to misinformation. Students are bombarded by good and bad sources of information presented on equal levels and are not always given the skills to differentiate between the two. With this prevalence of vast amounts of information and misinformation available to students, it is increasingly more important to teach students information retrieval and quality assessment. Professors/ teaching assistants can hand out a list of recommended sources of information or list of ways to determine whether a source is reliable or not.
Within the classroom, a good way to deal with shortened attention spans may be to take breaks or change the pace of the class frequently. Professor Perry Samson from the University of Michigan keeps the attention of the students by periodically posting questions that students have to answer by phone or laptop (Pappano 2014). Although professors and teaching assistants can’t control what students do in their spare time, they can make students aware of the difficulty of productive multitasking and the consequences of constant distraction.
There are also ways to encourage appropriate use of technology, which can then be used to supplement learning in several ways. In my class, I use the Collab site to post assignments, to lead forums in which students answer each other’s questions and do pre-lab assignments, and to post resources for students to review before class and to use for homework. I also encourage electronic submissions of homework to save paper and facilitate students receiving and paying attention to feedback. Additionally, students are allowed to have laptops open in class so they can follow along in the lecture/ discussion without having lab manuals printed and they can take notes and collect data electronically.
In the future I plan to continue increasing my use of technology in the classroom. Interactive syllabi are a great way to organize and refer to massive amounts of information and encourage students to refer back to the document throughout the course. I am also contemplating completely flipping the classroom so that students can review as much material outside of class as possible and come to class with questions to discuss and work on exercises that make abstract concepts from the lecture more concrete. In this way, students can directly ask the teaching assistant for help when they have a question. Students have in the past reviewed lecture material before class by reading lab manuals. However, the students become overwhelmed by the length and density of these manuals and so are not prepared for class. The material may be more accessible in video or module form. I’m exploring the use of Panopto or VoiceThread to record lectures and put together interactive tutorials. This would be especially important to some students learning how to use Excel for the first time because they will be able to follow along with the tutorial at their own pace and revisit the tutorial whenever necessary throughout the semester.
Although technology can be misused and become detrimental to learning, there are many ways in which it can greatly facilitate learning. As it is inevitable that students are going to use computers, smartphones, and tablets, they might as well be used for learning as well as entertainment. Through the use and explanation of policy and through example set by the professor or teaching assistant, students can learn how to use technology to aid learning both inside and outside the classroom; this skill will not only help students while in college but will also in their personal and professional lives.
Itiya Aneece is pursuing a PhD in Environmental Sciences at the University of Virginia. She has taught the Fundamentals of Ecology lab since the Fall of 2011, has recently completed the Tomorrow’s Professor Today program, and enjoys exploring new ways to encourage learning.
Looking for more on this topic? May we suggest a 3-post series on face-to-face education in the digital age by TRC Assistant Director Matthew Trevett-Smith.