Technology in the Classroom: Assets and Liabilities

After reading the Faculty Focus Special Report “Social Media Usage Trends Among Higher Education Faculty” I was spurred to share a best practice regarding the use of technology in the classroom.

In my work as the director of faculty development I’ve been observing the ubiquitous and pervasive infusion of technology in education over the past 20 years, but at a seemingly accelerated rate during the past five years with the advent of wireless networks, smart phones, tablets, and increasingly more powerful laptops. I’m sure this trend will not abate or slow, which begs the questions, what are we educators going to do about it?

I work in a college of osteopathic medicine and we run two curricula; a fairly traditional PBL model and a Case Based model. Both consist of small (7 or 8), intact (for each quarter) groups with one facilitator. The major difference between them is that the PBL model does not include traditional lectures and all student work is done around the cases while in the Case Based model students have a more traditional lecture/lab set up. Also, in PBL the cases are unfolded slowly and the students identify their own learning issues while in the Case Based model the instructors identify the case learning issues though authored questions and new cases are used each week. The facilitators in both models have very similar roles and come from all disciplines.

It is my contention that as educational and classroom leaders we have a responsibility to set clear expectations, which is Job One of all good leaders. I’d like to share one practical strategy we used to do just that in terms of communicating our expectations for using technology in the classroom.

First we gathered all our small group facilitators (we use clinicians, basic and social scientists and student fellows) for an hour-long event in which we asked them to work together to do three things: 1) identify the assets of these tools; 2) identify the liabilities of these tools; and 3) establish some reasonable ground rules to maximize the assets and minimize the liabilities. Below is one example of what we came up with after just an hour. It’s been very helpful to a) deal with issues overtly, b) wrestle with how to leverage the assets and liabilities, and c) provide a platform for open discussion. As you read it, I encourage you to think about how you might adapt it to work within the context of your courses.

Statement of the Challenge: Our school and students are rapidly moving away from paper-based products and using computers and other electronic devices to accomplish their work. This growing electronic technology pervasiveness in the small group setting requires us to think critically about its impact on small group work. Therefore, by explicitly stating the primary purposes of the small group-learning format, and outlining the major assets and liabilities/challenges of this emerging development, we have developed some “rules of engagement” for consideration by your group.

Just-in-time information
Learn how to use technology (individually & in a small group)
Divided attention so some are missing the work of the group or having private study
Tools to make group more efficient & interdependent Distraction and/or diversion of group work
Can be used to create “shared experience” Time sink for searches
Instant tool to look up definitions quickly for group Source reliability and validity
Projection of scribe work on screen Computer operation and presenter control
Ability to save scribe work as .doc or .pdf files File organization
Projection of notes, diagrams, pictures on screen File sharing
Ability to save any notes, diagrams, pictures on screen Not using the technology wisely
Instant question submission to weekly Synthesis & Integration Panel Leaning on technology rather than learning
Emails to and from experts in group Instant Evidence Based Medicine work (discourages preparation?)
Paperless educating/learning Slows the group down
Easier to administer progressive disclosure Greater preparation required on the part of the facilitators and the block case writers
Will eliminate paper copies Technology training required
Physical barrier to group participation

Suggested “ground rules” for heading off potential misuses of technology:
1. Discussion is still supreme (as opposed to reading off a screen).
2. Laptop work must be related to the groups tasks (no personal email, chat or other surfing/playing).
3. System should be used for sharing information (send to Blackboard and bring up in class as favorite resources).
4. Scribe should control the technology for the session.
5. Wrap up should include evaluation of how the technology is being used.
6. Group agrees on what they believe is appropriate use.
7. Give immediate feedback if technology is being used inappropriately.
8. Agree that it is not appropriate to look up work that should have been prepared in advance.
9. Purpose of technology is to enhance group effectiveness.
10. Quick look-ups allowed (less than 60 seconds)
11. Single, group-only computer. No individual users.

Note that the identified ground rules are simply suggestions for the group to negotiate. We encourage the facilitators to lead the group in a discussion so the group has ownership. Our experience with this has consistently shown a more cohesive and unified group in terms of use of technology.

We feel this method helped us document some of the issues and moved us from victims to victors by allowing us to proactively begin to capitalize on emerging technologies as they become the new tools of the trade.

Stephen S. Davis, PhD is the director of faculty development at Ohio University, Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine.