Recently, a conversation on our department’s listserve sparked me to offer a rare response. Most of what you need to know about the conversation on the list is embedded in my comments below, and I would welcome ideas for how you help students use technology during class in productive, ethical, and responsible ways.
This conversation about student technology use comes for me at an interesting point in the summer, having just a few weeks ago finished our summer institute with the Chippewa River Writing Project (which was a four-week, laptop intensive experience for participants) and as I plan for teaching and professional development work this fall (in which computer labs and internet access will be a critical part of the work). Having been on vacation and just now catching up on the conversation, I have a few thoughts on this. While I surely sympathize with all of you who have students using laptops for off-task behaviors in class (and have had similar experiences myself), I am quite disturbed by the general tone of this conversation in regards to students, their social skills, and technology uses. To me, the suggestion that we “selectively shut-off the WiFi in the classroom” or “forbid in-class use of laptops and any of those smaller things” is akin to something like censorship, an act that we would rally against.
While I am not condoning the use of Facebook during class time or other types of distracted behavior, I think that there are two aspects of this issue that haven’t been addressed — the ways in which we invite students to be academics and our own pedagogical styles, both in relation to technology. For the first, I find the suggestion that students not use the internet during our classes or outside of class to be ridiculous, as it is our responsibility to teach them how to use it productively, ethically, and responsibly for many purposes, not the least of which is communicating with us, engaging in research, and creating digital texts. For the second, I think that we all have a responsibility to think about the ways that we ask, even encourage students to use technology in our classrooms, above and beyond simply taking notes.
My experience — having taught in labs for the past three years and with the writing project this summer — is that simply setting norms for technology use and, periodically, revisiting these norms will eliminate most of the problems and help you learn from your students how best to employ technology. If you want them to take notes, why not have an interactive Google Doc with the day’s agenda posted for the all to take notes, post questions, and add links to pertinent web resources? If you are worried that internet searching and instant messaging is killing their critical thinking ability, then why not engage them in online discussions and model the types of responses you would expect them to give? In other words, don’t blame the technology causing bad behavior when you have opportunity to employ it in productive ways.
As I have done with undergraduates, graduates, and teachers in professional development settings, when we were having trouble with off-task behavior this summer, I simply paused in class one day to ask everyone to brainstorm with me in a grid about the positives and negatives that the laptops had for us as teachers and learners. Many people expressed great appreciation for the fact that they could be connected to one another in class through our wiki, Google Docs, and other collaborative technologies. Some were concerned that these technologies could be distracting when they couldn’t get the right log in password or find the right settings to make changes on a website. Many admitting to quickly checking their email or Facebook during class time, and agreed that it should not be done while others were presenting their teaching demonstration or when we had a group discussion. In fact, we agreed to make an effort to ask for “lids down” moments when we really wanted everyone to attend carefully to what was said in this face-to-face setting and “lids up” moments when we wanted them to do something hands-on with their computers.
In short, I fear that this discussion about limiting students’ technology use in class treads on very dangerous water, as we are fortunate enough to have the computer labs that we do have and making broad claims that we would want to turn off the internet or ban technology all together seems, at best, anti-intellectual and, at worst, a violation of students’ right to learn in whatever manner they see fit.
Beyond that, I haven’t even addressed some of the latest research about how young people perceive technology use in their own lives and the social shifts that are happening because of it. If we ignore these shifts, it is at our own peril, because students will find other ways to learn. For more on that, I recommend that you check out this book (available as a free PDF download) — Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media (MIT Press) and this FRONTLINE Special, Digital Nation.
My hope is that we can continue to talk about productive uses of technology, both for our students and for our teaching while not simply resorting to the “kids these days” kinds of comments that have been evident in the earlier threads of this discussion.
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