How I Let My Students Use Tech In The Classroom

Once again, a curmudgeonly recommendation to remove “technology” (read: cell phones and laptops) from the classroom is making the rounds in higher education circles. And once again, we see people rightly criticizing “no technology” policies as ableist. Consider, for instance, this tweet below (which also includes a link to the current offending piece on banning technology):

Certainly, I pride myself on running a classroom that is disability-friendly, using policies that mean that when I get an accommodation letter from the Office of Disability Services the student can generally say “It probably won’t come up, because of the way the course is run.”

But it’s not only accessibility that makes me prefer a technology-friendly classroom, although accessibility alone is and should be a sufficient motivation to implement a policy (or, I guess, not implement a policy). It’s also the fact that having all those digital devices in the classroom is a good thing for learning in general.

Essential study tools, all of which are allowed in my classroom (as long as you put a lid on that coffee)
Image by Alejandro Escamilla via StockSnap

I generally run a paperless classroom. This means that “I forgot to make copies” is not something I have to worry about (I forget a lot of things, so of course I’d forget to make copies). When I want students to see a document, it goes on the LMS. They can read it on their own devices as I project it on the board. And I’m pretty sure my department appreciates how little paper I use to teach, too.

I like to have students work collaboratively. I can set up a Google Doc and have them enter their contributions directly. Have you ever just sat back and watched a document magically write itself–watched revision and learning happening in real time? Digital tools allow me to observe and, as necessary, intervene in the process, not only the product. But these tools require that every student have access to a digital device in class; it’s ok for them to work in pairs over one, but they do need access.

I had a TA last semester who, when it was his turn to teach a lesson, would use a Google Slides add-on that would let him cast material to students’ personal devices. They could answer questions anonymously and dynamically. They could solve problems, and do all kinds of other useful learning activities, through their devices. It was a good use of the tools available.

I teach courses that require students to do a lot of research. Having digital devices in the classroom means that I can have them look things up as questions arise in the classroom. We can create dynamic, relevant, and timely examples as a class through the things they find.

Studying can look like this, and that’s ok.
Photo by Nguyen Nguyen via StockSnap

Do my students sometimes get distracted? Yes. But even then, my solution isn’t to punish them, or to try to take away the device. They’re distracted because the course topic may not seem as relevant as whatever it is they’re using the device for. So it’s my job to either change up what I’m doing to be more interesting or to bring the distraction into the classroom.

For example, when I was teaching a course that involved video game analysis, I noticed one day (this was several years ago) that several of my students were really distracted in class. They were playing 2048. So, I took some class time to put them on the spot: tell me about the mechanics in 2048. Why is this an interesting game? How does it hold your interest? Then, next class, I brought in some remakes of 2048 that used the combination mechanic to make commentary on things like the writing process.

More recently, when I see students distracted, as in this Inside Higher Ed article’s example, with things like sports, I ask them about the rhetoric of sports. What goes into reporting on sports? How is using sports data for fantasy football similar to compiling data for other kinds of research? I’ve had a lot of student athletes lately; this works really well for them.

And I’m not pandering to my students. I’m building bridges, bridges that take my topic directly into the students’ own territory, rather than trying to make them cross the chasm to my own. I’m listening to what’s interesting them and looking for connections to what I’m teaching. And if you’re not able to see connections to what you’re teaching for almost anything that comes up, why are you teaching it? Isn’t the goal to teach material that is generalizable and useful to our students?

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