Technology in the Classroom: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

When used well, technology in the classroom can be a great tool as long as students and professors are conscientious of how and when it is used to get the most benefit. But in the technological age we live in, how do we know when to take advantage of the gadgets we have available and when to take a step back and turn them off?

I was inspired to write this post by a professor that I currently work with who has a very strict cell phone policy in her classroom. She even spent a great deal of time on the first and second days of class explaining her policy and the rationale behind it. When she explained to students that they would need to turn off their cell phones and put them away before walking through the door, and could not turn them back on until they walked out the door after class, there were a lot of eye rolls throughout the classroom. But she had many valid points about how distracting cell phones can be and how that negatively affects student learning (more on that later).

This got me thinking – in the technological age we live in, how do we know when to take advantage of the gadgets we have available and when to take a step back and turn them off?

When used well, technology in the classroom can be a great tool to engage students and relate to their interests. Multi-media presentations are visual and interactive, using polling software such as PollEverywhere offers valuable feedback and gauges understanding in real time, and media assignments such as writing in discussion forums, creating Prezis, or editing websites allow students to display their knowledge in creative formats.

The problem arises when technology interferes with student learning. Some PowerPoint presentation formats can be perceived as boring and ugly by students, and can disconnect the professor from the pace of student learning.  Presentations should be built to guide lectures or discussions and not to just be read from directly.  Professors should also remain flexible and attentive to student needs despite having prepared the slides in advance.  Finally, special consideration should be given to if, how, and when to share slides with students.  If students expect to get the slides, then how will that affect their ability to concentrate in class or to take notes?  As long as the professor is conscious of this, they can decide how to address it in their classroom.

Speaking of taking notes, another way technology enters the classroom these days is that many students prefer to write or type notes on their tablets or laptops.  Research has shown that this can impair learning since they tend to multitask and get distracted, which undermines their capacity to comprehend and recall information.  Another recent study by Mueller and Oppenheimer (2014) has shown that even when students are focusing strictly on taking notes, they process information better when writing in longhand rather than typing on a keyboard.  When students write in longhand, they have to think critically about what is important and translate that into their own words.  On the other hand, when students type notes, they tend to write as much as possible, transcribing lectures verbatim and processing less information in the present.

Finally, we arrive at the issue of cell phones.  Anyone who has been in a college classroom in the past 10-15 years has witnessed the way these can be a huge distraction to everyone, not just the person playing with the device.  Even the most well-intentioned student can forget to turn their volume off, or can get distracted by a vibration or an alert that pops up on screen.  Unfortunately, I have also heard of them being used in some instances for dishonorable academic conduct such as looking up answers during a test.  So how do we deal with cell phones when nearly every student brings them to class?  I have heard of or experienced a few solutions to this problem that are worth considering.  A professor in my undergraduate university had a policy that if a cell phone rang during class, he would offer an impromptu quiz to the class.  A friend who recently started teaching at a state school said it was the policy of the department to turn off and hand in cell phones during exams.  And as I mentioned in the introduction, the professor I currently work with has students use the doorframe as a physical barrier to have students put away cell phones, which represents the mental cue to the brain that it’s time to focus on class.

So why all the fuss about cell phones?  It turns out that they can actually have an enormous impact on student learning.  Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin (2015) describes research showing that the brain is not very good at mutitasking – rather than juggling a bunch of tasks at once, it is actually just switching between them very rapidly, while losing some efficiency and capacity at the same time.  This is physically stressful for the brain, which releases stress hormones in the process.  Additionally, trying to learn while multitasking causes the new information to go to the wrong part of the brain, meaning it won’t end up in your long term memory for later recall.  Other research shows that the brain has a “novelty bias”, which rewards it for finding something new.  This means that the alerts on our cell phones that pop up, even when it’s on silent, take over our brain and compete with whatever classroom task we were previously trying to focus on.  Finally, research has found that being in a situation where you are trying to concentrate on a task, while simultaneously knowing that an email is sitting unread in your inbox, can reduce your effective IQ by 10 points.  That’s huge!  All in all, the evidence is overwhelming that cell phones decrease learning potential.

While sharing some of this information with students might garner some eye rolls, it’s worth considering.  Just as professors should be meticulous about their approach to teaching, so should students be diligent about their learning.  Metacognition is an important skill for students to foster, and presenting them with information about how their brains interact with technology is an important piece of that puzzle.  When used well, technology in the classroom can be a great tool as long as students and professors are conscientious of how and when it is used to get the most benefit.


Image credit:“Technology,” Skeeze, Pixabay (CC)

Mueller, P. A. & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2014). “The Pen is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand over Laptop Note Taking”Psychological Science, 25(6), 1159-1168

Levitin, D. (2015). “Why the Modern World is Bad for the Brain”Published by the Guardian, an excerpt from The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload”.  

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