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Technology in the Classroom: Blessing or Bane?

After about a year or two of teaching at the Saunders College of Business, I decided to make a new rule for my class. I banned personal technology (cell phones, tablets, and computers) from my classroom except during approved groupwork sessions. I’ve been in some excellent discussions about this (Hi, Chris!) and wanted to discuss why I ban technology and what it would take for me to change my mind.

There are three good reasons why I might allow technology in my class. The first is to allow students to explore their own creative interests. The second is in the interests of personal freedom–students have a right to do as they please in class as long as it truly is not a distraction and they are still learning. The third is to allow students to take notes. Any others you can think of? Bear in mind that students can use technology during group exercises to look up info on companies.

I banned technology mainly because of the following reasons, however:

I. Distractions for students and those around them Have you ever had the experience of being at a meeting, checking your phone, only to find a rather distracting or urgent text message that made it difficult to focus? Or, noticing someone else checking their phone, reflexively reached for yours? Technology usage is oddly contagious. The problem is, in a classroom of 40 people, a wave of technology checking means no one is really paying attention anymore. There’s also some interesting research showing that being distracted for just 30 seconds means it takes several minutes to refocus. And of course, don’t get me started on being subjected to random ringtones, beeps, and clicks in the classroom.

II. Technology envy and diffusion. I once watched with amusement, back when I allowed technology, as more and more laptops cropped up in the class over time. Students started bringing in laptops more because they could, rather than to improve learning. One concern about permitting technology in the classroom is it sets up a bit of a class distinction. Taking my notes on pen and paper doesn’t seem as fun compared to my neighbor’s iPad.

III Group participation and enforcement issues. Technology can be quite antisocial, and I feel like it makes students lose the group dynamic. I’ve seen students bring in a laptop and then seem to mentally check out of class, not wanting to participate in group exercises and seeming oblivious. Now do I need to tell the student to put their laptop away? Or check their screen? But what if they really are taking notes? Essentially, I don’t want to waste my classroom time feeling like I have to police technology usage so that other students might not be distracted by Runescape or Minecraft.

IV. The Average Student Dilemma.  I definitely agree that the top creative, responsible minds in my class could do quite well if I just said “For the next 10 minutes, look up anything you can on entrepreneurial finance.” I’ve wanted to devise a class for some time that would rely mostly on individual pacing and motivation. Technology would be a large part of that. However, I’ve found that when I try to get too creative in the classroom, a lot of the students get left behind. I think that a properly designed course that used technology might be great for the top 10%, but I feel that it would not necessarily benefit all students. It also means that the students don’t have a common knowledge base to draw on the way we do if we all work together on same material. Also, what common technology could I depend on everyone to have? Not everyone even has smartphones, let alone tablets. And even if I could mandate (such as clickers), I wouldn’t want to add extra cost.

Now, one development I’m keeping an eye on is the improvement of e-readers and tablets. IF (big if) it becomes clear that electronic devices are better than pen and paper for taking notes, I would definitely change my policy. I can see that day coming down the road, but I don’t think we are quite there yet. So then, those of you who permit free use of technology in the classroom, how has it been a blessing? Feel free to challenge my points.

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5 Responses to “Technology in the Classroom: Blessing or Bane?”

  1. Mike Johansson on May 2nd, 2012 4:43 am

    John – you make excellent points both for and against the use of technology in the classroom and I can certainly understand the rationale behind your current banning of tech in many situations. But I wonder if the problem is more “global” for all lecture hall and classroom settings.

    In other words, in the current situation students have these tools but in all likelihood don’t have a complete understanding of the costs of using them at different times (i.e. distraction in the classroom). Now, with all the focus on distracted driving it would seem a great time to help students understand that for all the good and useful things technology can do one of the dangerous things it does whether its understood or not is distract us. It becomes the thing requiring our focus and therefore it takes out focus from all other things.

    I have had some success using this example to help “show” rather than “tell” students about the dangers of “laptopping” or “smart-phoning” in the classroom. Because the other issue teachers have to deal with is that the developing brain cannot fully process consequences of any action until sometime after the individual has turned 25 – well beyond the college years.

    I’m not sure I have a simple or easy solution, but perhaps in the same way we require young people to get a driver’s license so they can take a few thousand pounds of deadly steel and aluminum on a highway we should also require a license to use electronics in a classroom. It’s an odd thought I’ll admit, but maybe the need to prove that you understand the consequences will in itself convey the seriousness of making the choice to use the laptop or smart phone at all.

    Great post John – thanks for stimulating hat I hope will become a great debate.

  2. Paul A. Rubin on May 2nd, 2012 7:19 pm

    Other uses for tech include looking up references or definitions on the fly, or plotting functions mentioned in class to get a better feel for them.

    I agree with most of your points, but you cannot legislate attentiveness by banning distractions. The student always has the insides of his eyelids to contemplate. I do ban things that make noise our produce distracting visual effects.

  3. S K Nanduri on May 3rd, 2012 3:19 am

    Providing technology to all at low costs and with limited functions will serve the purpose of controlling distractions and give support to average students who cannot buy them.
    Though nothing could overcome the individual will to learn using these resources, availability to escape the classrooms can be detrimental.

  4. John Angelis on May 6th, 2012 2:22 pm

    Mike, I think you shed some interesting light on the problem here. Perhaps it is a matter of letting the students ride the bike with its training wheels and being willing to help the process with my own feedback. The concern, though, is that adding this to the class goals creates more burden and makes teaching less efficient. But it’s a good perspective to share.

    Paul, “you cannot legislate attentiveness by banning distractions” is a good observation. I believe that as tech devices get smaller, I’m a bit more willing to allow them in the class. As you said, it’s about banning obviously noisy or distracting devices. A laptop with a 15″ screen is more distracting than, say, a small tablet that is the same size as the student’s book and fits comfortably on the table.

    S K, I like what you said about technology for all. As technology becomes more ubiquitous, it becomes less sensible to try to keep it out, yes. I’ll have some interesting thinking to do this summer on all these thoughts.

  5. Only at Saunders… | Student Blogs on July 11th, 2012 3:53 pm

    [...] Be sure to show him some appreciation and check out his blog (I would also be on the lookout for a follow-up blog post on this topic from him sometime soon). Thanks and have a great [...]

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