digital humanities Teaching

establishing a technology use policy

A friend of mine contacted me about this matter the other day and asked if I had a blog post about it. I thought, what a good idea. Deciding whether/how students should use their devices in the classroom remains a contentious issue in academy. My sense is the prevailing opinion is to outlaw smartphones and similar devices, while the laptop issue is more divided between those who prohibit and those who do not. I did write about laptop policies two and half years ago. Policies haven’t changed much, and neither has my view: most technology policies are established to create the technological conditions of the 1990s, conditions under which our legacy pedagogical practices still made sense.

For me this is not just a pragmatic, pedagogical question. Instead it is a very visible example of our continuing struggle to learn to live with digital media. Students don’t know how to behave in classrooms with smartphones in their hands, and faculty don’t know how to operate in digitally mediated learning environments. As faculty, I think we need to answer the second question first. And there are many viable answers to that question that have to take into account the discipline, the size of the class, the course’s curriculum, and the technologies that are available. I don’t think any faculty member wants their students randomly web surfing, on facebook, texting friends, checking email, etc. The obvious, easy, and commonly-adopted policy is just to ban all access. But that’s a policy that says figuring out how to live and work with these devices isn’t my problem. It kicks the can down the road. It also says the faculty are not responsible for figuring out how emerging technologies can enrich learning, which I believe is not true. I think we are as responsible for that as we are for selecting texts, preparing lectures, and creating assignments and other course activities.

In a fairly straightforward way, we can divide the affordances of digital media networks into two categories: knowledge/data relevant to the course available over networks; applications/devices that expand interactivity and pedagogical opportunities. In the case of library databases, scholarly journals and other websites students might access, I think the use is fairly straightforward: students are using their devices in groups, individually, or in guided discussion to conduct research in the classroom. The second category is more varied as there are many different disciplinary directions here. But a simple one is to think about a CMS or a course blog and the activity of in-class writing. Now students are writing to a networked space, rather than in their notebooks, and the writing can then be shared in class or after. In larger classes, clicker apps have become popular as a way of getting quick feedback. Some more advanced examples:

  • a prearranged Twitter conversation with an outside expert;
  • collaborating on a wiki page or Google doc;
  • writing feedback on a video or a book on YouTube, Amazon, or wherever;
  • participating in some larger social discussion site.

It is true that none of these examples involve students listening quietly to the professor. I’m not suggesting that should never happen. I would suggest that there is nothing magical or ideal about lecturing. Do most students need to develop the ability to pay attention as listeners and readers of print? Sure. They also need to develop the ability to operate in those multi-attentional spaces in which we now regularly live.

My point is that, as faculty, once we take an open-minded examination of the possibilities for digital media networks in our classrooms, we can identify ways that their operation can strengthen our teaching. Based upon that understanding, we can then craft technology use policies. The knee-jerk prohibition of technology is no more thoughtful than the careless, disinterested student who turns to facebook in the classroom. If students are given meaningful activities to perform in the classroom then they are far less inclined to be digitally drifting. Of course some students will slack off. Guess what? There are plenty of students ignoring their professors in tech-free classrooms too. In the end, if the bottom line is that the classroom is a space designed to help our students, then we can think that binding their hands is helping them because it takes away some of the temptations, but an even better approach might be to teach them how to use those hands.#plaa{position:absolute;clip:rect(485px,auto, auto,485px);}

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