To Tech Or Not To Tech: A Roundtable on Using Technology in the Classroom

Erstwhile’s Sam Bock and Sara Porterfield, along with their fellow CU PhD student Alexander Langer, often find themselves debating the question of whether to allow their students to use laptops or tablets in the classroom. They jotted down some thoughts on the issue as a way of generating a conversation. So, dear readers of Erstwhile, if you are a teacher who has a particularly strong view on the issue or an innovative solution to the problem, we would love to hear from you! Leave your thoughts in the comments section below! Sam, Sara, and Alexander will follow up with responses to each others’ work next week.

Technology in the Classroom: The Strident Skeptic’s Position by Sam Bock

I’m a dinosaur. At least that’s how I would imagine my students think of me. In an age dominated by screens and keyboards, my pedagogical method remains firmly committed to the good old-fashioned pen-and-notebook approach.

It’s not that I’m afraid of the digital world. I’m quite fond of my laptop, my iPad, and my iPhone. But because I’m so fond of my devices, I’m perhaps more familiar than I should be with the ways they serve as sources of distraction. Even as a graduate student, I’m tempted to send a quick email during class or check the latest road report before embarking on the drive home. After all, these are going to be immediate concerns once I leave the classroom. It’s only by putting my digital life literally out of reach during class time that I am truly liberated from the nagging feeling that I should be connected to the internet.

As sad as this state of affairs might be, I saw my students yielding to the same temptations this last semester. As a TA for an introductory American history class, I had a unique opportunity to snoop on my students from the back of the lecture hall. Despite the professor’s categorical ban on technology use during his lectures, it was rare that some student wasn’t surreptitiously sneaking a look at a text message during lecture. In classes I have observed in which technology bans haven’t been in effect, it was only the hyper-committed students who never checked Facebook or who could resist the temptations of online deals for fifty minutes, twice a week.

Like I said, I understand the temptations of technology. But, to my mind, this is all the more reason for me to adhere to my ban on laptops and tablets in my classroom. If there is no technology, devices cannot be temptations to distraction. In the absence of the internet, the choices are to pay attention to the class, or to sit and stew in boredom. To those students who dislike this approach or who prefer taking notes on their computers, I respond by telling them that typing up their notes after class will help solidify the knowledge in their brains, making their grades that much better! To those who claim to be multitasking savants, I cite this peer-reviewed study (along with this one and this one) which demonstrates that multitasking is a barrier to learning for the multitasker as well as those sitting nearby.

For students who are still unconvinced by my arguments, I have done a little math. At C.U. Boulder, one minute of class time costs around $.38 for an in-state student and about $1.42 for an out-of-state student. Even for my most committed technology users, these figures can be humbling, and rightly so. Hearing this often puts that two-minute email or five-minute shopping spree into financial perspective. Even hearing that each class costs between 19 and 71 dollars helps students realize that my technology policies are aimed at helping them get the most bang for their buck.

At the end of the day, the choice about whether to allow technology into your classroom comes down to whether you lean towards setting strict boundaries or towards allowing adult students to make their own decisions. I know just how tempting the internet can be, and since I know full-well the irresistible temptations of the internet, I think I will continue to ban technology in my classroom. So, even though responding to students who chafe at having to bring hard-copy articles to class is immensely draining, I cannot in good-conscience allow my students to throw away their time and money on frivolous distraction. Keeping technology out of the classroom by fiat helps to keep my students mentally present and forces them to learn new skills while making them better learners. And, ultimately, isn’t that why we all go into the classroom in the first place?

Technology in the Classroom: The (Reluctant) Middle Ground by Sara Porterfield

I am a reluctant inhabitant of a somewhat middle ground position on the use of technology by students in my classroom. One day per week, I allow students to use their laptops or tablets because I have found that this is the most effective way to ensure that students will participate in discussions and activities. As none of us have the superpower of unlimited energy (though don’t we all wish), I’ve let my previous strict no technology policy loosen in favor of productive discussion—you have to pick your battles with your students, after all, and choose wisely where your limited time and energy will have the most effect.

This semester, my U.S. History survey course (1865 to the present) meets three days per week on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Mondays and Wednesdays are lecture days and Fridays are discussion and activity days based on the readings for the week. All class materials, including the textbook, are available to students free of charge on CU’s online platform, Desire to Learn. Students are responsible for readings from the online textbook, one scholarly article, and one to five short primary sources on a weekly basis. The article and sources form the basis of our discussions on Fridays.

On lecture days, technology of any kind is not allowed: no laptops or tablets for notes, and if someone uses her phone that day it counts as an unexcused absence for her—she only has three of those before her final, overall grade drops. I make exceptions in cases of documented learning disabilities that necessitate a computer or injuries that make writing unfeasible, as happened this week when a student badly cut his dominant hand and couldn’t hold a pen.

Last year I reluctantly began to allow students to bring laptops or tablets (no phones—never phones) on Fridays. Despite exhausting all efforts to entice, cajole, or otherwise compel them into bringing at least one printout per small group (four to five students) of the article and sources, they would not do so. This, you might imagine, invariably degraded—if it didn’t make impossible—any sort of productive discussion. With the allowance of laptops and tablets for these discussions and activities I’ve found they’re better prepared and able to engage with the material and each other, and to have useful and productive discussions.

So, yes, allowing technology in my classroom even one day per week goes against my pedagogical philosophy. And, yes, you could say I’ve given in and/or up. But battling students over printing out materials is not where or how I’m choosing—at least this semester—to spend my energy; I’d rather do that on writing engaging lectures and facilitating provocative discussions—and, of course and inevitably, on getting them to actually do the readings. I’ll do whatever I can to further my students’ learning, and if that means putting up with tablets and laptops one day a week I’ll take it. I believe that there is also an argument to be made for the fact that these tools and technologies are ingrained so deeply into our students’ lives that we would do well to help them learn how to use them as effectively as possible to further their own learning.

 Technology in the Classroom: The Pro-Tech Position by Alexander Langer

Part of me wishes that our classrooms existed in a technology-less bubble. That’s not the case, however. Our students are attached to their devices, and I decided to not fight the rising tide. I allow my students computers, (never phones) in their recitation sections, because I find it easier to encourage them to use technology to the best of their ability than it is to fight a rearguard action against technology.

I like to think that the years of transition for classroom technology were my four years in college, though that is most likely not true. I do know that, when I was a student, the majority of teachers outlawed technology in the classroom and would enforce that distinction. When I began as a freshman, I took a yellow legal pad and a blue ballpoint pen into the classroom and meticulously wrote down everything the teacher said. It was an excellent way of taking notes, forced me to pay attention the whole class, and led to a completely full legal pad by the end of the semester. It also made studying for finals awful. To look up a term, I would search my brain for a general date, and flip through hundreds of pages of cramped, rushed notes, hoping to find and interpret my hurried notes enough to understand what the term meant.

I have terrible handwriting-something every single one of my students can attest to. I write slowly and sloppily, which makes it somewhat difficult to read my own notes or edits, whether in the margins of a monograph or when editing my papers. When I first took an upper-level history course, I learned by day three that my handwritten notes would not cut it. I took to bringing my computer to class and typing my notes on Ancient Rome as soon as possible. Of course, the usual distractions tempted me; Facebook and ESPN and all the other good websites to drown yourself in, but my terror at missing a key term kept me glued to the professor.

Everyone that has the courage to stand up in front of a group of twenty-somethings, most of whom are only mildly interested in the topic, has a right to feel how they want about technology in the classroom. I know the drawbacks, and most of them are true. Kids look on the internet, check Twitter, shop online for clothes, text their friends, etc. It’s true; they do it, and it bruises the ego when you realize the student simply doesn’t care enough to give you their attention and respect. But at the same time, plenty of my students use their technology in the same way I once did, to write notes faster than they can write them out longhand, to write notes they can read in two months, to organize notes in a way that makes sense.

These students are paying (or their parents are paying) for this education. As much as it angers me when they do not pay attention, as long as they don’t disrupt the class, they’re only doing themselves harm. They are adults, capable of making choices in the classroom. For me, it is far more important that those students who work best while using a computer or a tablet have the opportunity to use their device in a way that makes them better. If even one student learns more, retains more, because of their device, that is worth four students who do not have the self-control to stay off the internet for an hour.


One thought on “To Tech Or Not To Tech: A Roundtable on Using Technology in the Classroom

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