All Wired Up: Six Questions Technology in the Classroom Raises

Jessica Custer

Typical text messaging between two students in, say, a physics classroom:

Katie: “U bored?”
John: “Ya”
Katie: “Check out Lauren’s Facebook pics from last night”
John: “Looking now”

The professor at the front of the classroom drones on about projectile motion. Katie and John aren’t worried about what they’re missing. They can watch the podcast lecture whenever they get around to it.

Today, students are using technology more than ever to communicate, learn, listen and interact. Text messaging sends them to the internet where they sign into the world of Facebook, Twitter and an online social life. Students enroll in online classrooms (including Blackboard and ISIS); lectures are available on iTunes U and YouTube. Students trip from link to link through cyberspace hoping to connect information with knowledge.

Academia is closely following the development of technology in the classroom and is trying to understand today’s “plugged in” student. Some research argues that online learning has considerable advantages over traditional education because students learn better online than face-to-face. Others point to the excess of online availability as a slippery slope of academic dishonesty with little authentic learning. So does the use of technology in the classroom advance or hinder the academic pursuit of truth? Scholars want to know.

Here, with observations by students and recent graduates, are six problems to consider in weighing the value or detriment of technology in the classroom.

1. Online searching may provide an immediate answer but students are missing out on a key part of the classroom—teacher-student interaction.

“When I have no idea what my professor is talking about, I Google it or head over to Wikipedia for background information” said a University of North Florida sophomore. When reminded she can raise her hand and ask, she simply replied, “Online is quicker.”

While students may be able to search the internet for quick answers, what they find is black and white information with a limited scope. Students can search for a fact and get just that: a fact. When students turn to the internet and not their professor, they limit their education to words on a page instead of actual knowledge gained from information and interaction.

In many ways, students cannot learn effectively from online, at-your-fingertips answers.

2. Does access to Google in the classroom really help students learn?

Last fall, UCLA released new research which concluded that students learn better when engaged in a “trial and error” effort to find information. In a series of experiments, the study found that if students fail to retrieve information on their first attempt, they remember the information better. Students’ retention rates were compared to student learning in a control environment in which they simply studied the information without interaction. Trying and failing to retrieve information is actually helpful to learning—and is less likely to happen when answers are accessible at a single click.

When students browse the internet for information supplemental to their classroom experience, they merely skim keywords without actually intercepting the information. But not all internet searching corrodes student education. In his 2008 Atlantic article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Nicholas Carr wrote, “Thanks to the ubiquity of text on the Internet, we may well be reading more today than we did in the 1970s or 1980s, when television was our medium of choice.”

However, just because students are reading more does not necessarily mean they are learning more. One college freshman at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill remarked that he has trouble remembering what he read in a given day. “I spend hours reading on the internet about history and current events, but can barely tell you what I actually read, let alone if I learned something new.”

3. Does technology-based education teach anything beyond how to use the technology itself?

Students have unlimited access to technology throughout their college experience: laptops, smart phones, smart applications and e-readers (including the distribution of the new iPad) are all available 24/7. Colleges and universities often use technology as a learning supplement with online activities, homework help and testing. If a classroom is at capacity at the University of Florida, students can watch in the comfort of their dorm room via an online lecture feed or catch it later on iTunes U.

A recent graduate of North Carolina State University, Christine DiPietro observed, “Students don’t know how to take notes anymore because lectures are online and can be re-winded.”

Considering the interconnectivity of education and technology, is education still valuable without access to the technology from which the student originally “learned” the material? For instance, my freshman year I enrolled in a course called Age of the Dinosaurs where 90 percent of the curriculum was online and 10 percent in person. As a result, I learned the technology, not the material. If you asked me to recite a simple fact from the class, I could not give you an answer. But ask me how to find it on the CD Rom and I will point you to the search function.

4. Is banning laptops in class a good solution?

In an effort to limit technology distraction in the classroom, some professors are banning laptops. A recent Washington Post article featured David Cole at Georgetown Law as one of the many professors who is urging students to take notes and engage in class the old fashioned way—on  paper and in person.

Is regulating behavior the solution? Student distraction is not new to this generation; my parents put magazines on the inside of their textbooks and passed notes on folded paper to one another (I know, shocking). How far should professors go to ensure that their students are not distracted but instead are engaged, listening and comprehending the material?

A student at Duke University (which gave iPods to all freshman students from 2004-06) says banning laptops is not the solution to limiting classroom distraction. “When professors threaten to not allow laptops during lectures, they only encourage me to seek out other forms of entertainment, like my new smart phone applications.”

In many ways, laptop use should be considered on a case by case basis. For courses that have an online or eBook component, laptops are essential. But for others, banning laptops is the exact form of discipline needed for wandering students. In my undergraduate experience, having a laptop open on my desk was the exact distraction I could not overcome. My laptop was open to take “notes” and update my Facebook status, check email, shop online and look up Gator scores while “listening” to a lecture on Existentialism. A laptop ban or internet freeze could be the saving grace for students like me who find the diversion too tempting.

5. All technology is not created equal.

Teachers and students use certain forms of technology in the classroom based on the particular objectives of their courses. In that sense, the classroom shapes our use of technology. On the flip side, technology has also come to shape the classroom. A first-year medical student at the University of Kentucky says that access to medical journals online kindles far greater participation in the class discussions than reading the journals at home only.

In some courses, technology is vital to the classroom. Computer programming, select engineering and advanced mathematics classes all need computers to build models and connect text with application. In such classes, technology is the very content of education. And yet, in some of these classes professors may still ask you to turn off your smart phone.

6. In this hyperlinked world, how do we know what’s true and what’s false?

A compelling example of the inability to ensure credibility on the web and in private text messages comes from the now infamous Professor Peter W. Tague. The Georgetown University professor began his criminal-law course by announcing that United States Supreme Court Chief Justice, John G. Roberts would soon announce his retirement from the bench. Radar Online, a gossip site sister to the National Enquirer, reported in just 20 minutes the mind-boggling news which was then picked up by mainstream media including Drudge Report. Tague’s point? You can’t trust even the most reliable source; your law-abiding law school professor may not be telling the truth.

The blogosphere lit up after the media frenzy, bringing to light numerous questions about the credibility of online sources when reading opinion as fact. For students, this presents an enormous obstacle. With online search capabilities nearly limitless, students can find quotes, facts and answers instantly. They do not need evidence when they can just hyperlink to the source and let the professor figure out whether the information is credible. Using footnotes and submitting a paper as a hard copy are clearly antiquated.

Our Turn: How to Use Technology for Good

As scholars weigh the effects of more technology in the classroom, each consideration is not without concern and trepidation for the future. Traditional teacher-student interaction may be decreasing as online searches, podcasts and e-classrooms continue in popularity. Education is rapidly transforming with little sign of return to the “olden days.” The rise of technology cannot be ignored.

On one hand it is easy to view technology exclusively as a hindrance to academic learning. But each problem offers a solution—a solution possible when professors and students adapt and alter their teaching and learning styles to the new era of wired education.

In confronting the problems raised by technology, we may be one step close to academic truth. How? Use technologies for good; in fact, demand it. Technology connects students to the world beyond the classroom—connecting theory with application. With access to technology, students see the text of the page come to life with model simulations, relevant current events and interactive examples. Students can learn on their own, searching for information at the click of a mouse.

Professors can now use technology as another medium to engage a student’s mind. Technology connects the professor, curriculum and the student with one another in an instant. The success of student education is not in creating a new medium to teach, but instead reaching students where they already are; on the web, on their phones and on their laptops. The possibilities for professor-student interaction are infinite and no longer limited to just face-to-face. Online chat rooms for office hours, media blitzes and life lessons about the importance of credibility of source are just the beginning.

While these considerations are not exhaustive, they are a start. In considering the problems technology in the classroom presents one point remains clear: technology is here to stay and we can use it for good. In the end, we may find technology the key to the future of education, logged in and wired up.

Jessica Custer is a Policy Analyst at the John W. Pope Civitas Institute and the North Carolina State Chair for Network of enlightened Women.

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