Mid-Summer Thoughts: Technology Use in Class

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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7 thoughts on “Mid-Summer Thoughts: Technology Use in Class”

  1. Troy, I appreciate you sharing this. You and the fine folks at CMU are surely not the only ones wrestling with these issues. In my own classroom, particularly when working with pre-service teachers (PSTs), I’ve found that situations where technology appears to be distracting make for great opportunities to discuss how they’ll deal with the tech-as-distraction issue–which is surely not going away–in their own classrooms. Such conversations tend to get the PSTs thinking about their teaching, while also nudging them to be a bit more mindful of their tech use as students themselves.

    During these conversations, some PSTs have stated that the students they work with don’t have access to vast technologies, suggesting it’s not a real issue for them. Their points are often countered by peers who note that there are countless other distractions–books, magazines, homework for the next class period, etc.–that impede teaching and learning. Like you, many PSTs often come around to suggesting that utilizing active learning strategies is one of the best ways to ensure that students are engaged in thoughtful learning, regardless of the potential distractions at their fingertips.

  2. Troy
    So, perhaps this is a blog post to the choir, but I appreciate the articulation here.

    This sentence of yours sums up a lot of the friction going on:”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.”


  3. Hi Troy,
    I’m glad I was just comfortably clicking around FB and Twitter and found Kevin’s link here to your thoughts on a very timely issue that impacts many educators on all levels. For the first SI we had the full room of our community on laptops often. And of course some had iPads and everyone had phones. There was a lot to navigate and as a leadership team we talked about how to best open the issue of when lids should be down. A hook in the conversation took us from our experiences to the experiences of students and that’s when it started to make the conversation at hand more relevant.
    I agree, Troy, we need to conversation and instead of banning use, schools need the conversations as well. Who is listening? Too many educators are still more focused on the pre-tech high stakes tests.
    Thanks for the conversation starter,
    Bonnie K.

  4. Hey Troy,

    I subscribed to your feed as part of a summer PD on blogging in the classroom. I’m trying to bring my 8th grade LA class up to date by doing all tech PD this summer. Your blog looks like a great resource to learn from. I’ll be lurking in the shadows! Thanks for the great blog.

  5. I’m excited about the tools for backchannelling and look forward to using them in my classes this semester. I wonder if your colleagues feel any value for this type of learning? http://www.freetech4teachers.com/2010/01/five-platforms-for-classroom-back.html
    Technology integration does seem to threaten the control some teachers need to have over students’ behavior. To me, expecting that students will use some time to “play” is another aspect of what Mark Prensky talks about as a shift toward partnering pedagogy. Just as you were saying above, the need for students to be able to move around in different (virtual) spaces as they are learning is part of the process of exploration.

  6. This is exactly the way to have the discussion. We too just finished both our Summer Institute and an Open Institute on technology. And while kids at my old school don’t all have laptops, they have cell phones and text non-stop. The school has been making rules right and left about all this and had no results.

    We had people working on their laptops during our Summer Institute but it never got to be too much trouble because we talked about that sort of thing throughout. There were discussions about concentration on what was happening as well as the freedom to attack a problem or idea that sprung up in the middle of things.

    Then during our Open Institute, we had no trouble because we were talking about Twitter, Facebook, Google Docs and a dozen other technologies to enhance conversations. So everyone was focused on using the computer to think, converse, gather ideas, and so on.

    I’m going to Tweet this blog post because this is one of the biggest discussions teachers, parents, administrators, and students need to have. Many of us agree that technology is great in the classroom, but before it can be great it has to be a subject of learning. That’s what you’re advocating here. And quite nicely.

    Thank you.

  7. Thanks to all of you for your comments here. As you can imagine, my response to the department listserv generated some comments in reply — some were knee-jerk reactions, some more reasoned.

    That said, I finally got to watch the FRONTLINE special and I am very impressed with the nuanced and complicated picture that it paints of our digital lives, both positive and negative. I hope that I can open up more dialogue with my colleagues and use some clips from the video to spark some pro/con discussion.

    Best of luck to all of you as you begin the school year!


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