Recent articles by Valerie Strauss (@valeriestrauss) in the Washington Post and Dan Rockwell (@Leadershipfreak) in the New Yorker pander to the insecurities of college instructors and ignore research showing that web applications designed to invite participation can lead to improved engagement in class. I’ve been a professor at a research university for over 35 years and can say with some confidence that students have always had the ability to lose focus in class. Students, when bored, will daydream, read the newspaper, stare out the window or find any number of other ways to disengage. The laptop just adds another option.
We have three choices when confronted with the challenge of students being distracted by laptop use. We can ban their use, ignore their use or use tools on the laptop that deliberately engage the students in the learning goals of the course. I argue the first two are ridiculous responses.
Philosophically one must ask why are we concerned about students being distracted. As the students must still pass whatever learning assessments we offer isn’t it on them to learn time management skills sufficient to be successful? They need to learn these skills sooner or later so why not in college? Is the issue that we’re worried about their learning or is it that their distraction is a reflection of how unengaging is our teaching?
With the support of the National Science Foundation I have been studying this issue for a few years. My interest is whether tools can be designed to promote participation in class, and especially large classes, where such opportunities have been rare. I use a web-based tool that allows students to take notes, answer questions, ask questions and indicate when they’re confused.
What my group found first was the ability for all to ask questions dramatically increased student participation alone as now even students who are reluctant to ask questions verbally (often female students and students for whom English is not their first language) are asking questions at a rate at or above the rate for male students and the fraction of students asking questions has increased to over 50% of students.
Second, we found that students reported feeling far more engaged in the material because they had more opportunities to participate. If you give students more opportunities to participate our results show they do. Technology facilitates the creations of multiple ways to engage students during class.
Third, the analytics of what students are doing in class can be related to they learning outcomes. Our research shows that mining the patterns of participation provide predictive tools for student understanding that can be used to focus feedback far earlier in the semester. Contrary to the arguments presented here we have a great deal of data showing that the laptops can increase engagement.
I don’t doubt that technology invites distractions (that’s precisely why I take a laptop to faculty meetings). The reality is that the onset of these devices is not going to stop and the dream that we can ban Internet-enabled devices from the classroom is foolish. The more important question is how can we use these devices to create more engaging learning environments.