Another school year is about to start for those of us who teach college courses. More and more, students are coming to classrooms and actively using technology -- laptops, smartphones, tablets -- for notetaking, looking up further information, networking and connecting to classmates. They're also using the technology for extracurricular activity, such as social media, gaming, non-class-related reading, and even watching videos.
Through the auspices of the HHMI, I'm advising a group of grad students and postdocs who are developing teachers, as they teach a course this semester, called "Exploring Biology". I'll write some more about this course and its design as the Teaching Fellows roll it out. Meanwhile, they face the decision that instructors around the country are facing: How much should an instructor regulate students' use of technology in the classroom?
I was prompted to quickly post on this topic because of Barbara King's post, "Can College Students Resist The Lure Of Facebook, Twitter During Class?"
I wrote here last week about the joys of learning science via Twitter. Some of us may bring online teaching tools into our classrooms by, say, assigning a series of high-quality blog posts, showing a YouTube video or "Ted" talk, or arranging Skype discussions with professionals in our field.
But as Jason Lanier says in his book You Are Not A Gadget, "The most important thing about a technology is how it changes people." As a culture, we have to fight the seductive appeal of constant connection via our technology, which fragments our attention and interrupts the joy of full immersion in thinking, problem-solving, and questioning.
Her earlier post on Twitter ("Nature Comes Into Full View On Twitter" is a good read.
Personally, I encourage my students to use more technology in the classroom. I want them integrating my classroom material with their lives outside the classroom, and that means engaging their online lives. That's one reason I engage the students with Twitter during class. But probably few instructors can effectively supervise a classroom that has so many student activities potentially going on. So I don't advise other instructors to follow my approach, they must make decisions based on their own pedagogy.
I do want to point readers to my post from earlier this year, "Best practices and tips for Twitter in the higher-ed classroom". An excerpt:
College students have become used to instant communication. Many professors complain that technology has given their students short attention spans and poor study skills. Others bewail the end of civilization, as they see their students reading Facebook during class instead of taking notes.
In reality, students are adapting to a new information environment. The cues that guided young academics to new ideas a generation ago were subtle, steeped in unwritten formalities, and exclusionary. Today, the best students are using social networks, feeds, and blogs to forage for the information that matters to them. But others will inevitably take advantage of the social buffet to browse away from your course's content.
What to do?
Try taking the reins, to meet your students at the information smorgasbord. Getting your students to interact with each other outside of class is one of the best ways to deepen their educational experience.
I find it to be an incredibly useful tool, not only for increasing classroom engagement but also making it much easier for me to quickly handle student questions.