Our student newspaper recently ran a story about students bringing their cell phones and computers to class. Not surprisingly, all of the teachers interviewed were against the practice on the grounds that these devices distracted students from class material. Some went so far as to forbid students from using them in class, although you have to wonder if they can really enforce such a rule.
I was interviewed in the next issue of the newspaper and I mentioned that I don’t object to computers and cell phones in class at all. In fact, I wonder if we should be encouraging students to bring them to class. For one, students will eventually be entering the working world where these devices are ubiquitous. Look at any business meeting and you will find everyone with smart phones or laptops. The restriction on their use amounts to telling students that they need to go back to using pen and paper for notetaking, like the 60’s. We are preparing students for a world that no longer exists.
But more importantly, I’m using the devices to increase student participation. This idea occurred to me when a student asked a factual question in class that I couldn’t answer off the top of my head. A few minutes later another student volunteered the answer, which she had looked up on her smart phone.
At that point I started telling students that they could bring their digital devices to class, but if they did they must be prepared to do research on the spot. For instance, I might say “Jerry, in what year did the Tuskegee Syphilis Study end?,” requiring him to research the answer for us.
This policy makes students collaborators in the learning process. It’s too easy to fall into the trap of believing that only teachers have valuable knowledge for students. While we may be the primary experts in our classroom, there is no reason why students cannot offer up information to advance the discussion.
I’m sure that the smart phones and laptops are a distraction at times, and no doubt students are checking text messages (email is passé among today’s students, in case you haven’t heard), and Facebook. But digital devices can also make them more engaged in the material, and can be of particular benefit to shy students who are afraid of saying something dumb if they speak up. This is not a concern when they are reporting someone else’s research.
So instead of fighting the digital movement, try treating it as a collaborator in the learning process and a way to get all of your students involved in class.
As always, I encourage your comments, criticisms, and cries of outrage in the comments section of the blog.