Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Managing mobile devices and laptops in the classroom

The topic of laptops and mobile devices in the classroom surfaces regularly and is one that cannot be avoided when active learning classrooms are setup to accommodate their use. Many instructors are often concerned as to whether the benefits outweigh the costs. The mere presence of laptops and mobile devices may potentially lead to distractions like checking messages and social media. Potential distractions in the classroom, however, are not new; students have also been distracted from what is happening in the classroom by newspapers, MP3 players, work for other classes, their peers, and lack of adequate sleep - just to name a few. Laptops and mobile devices are simply newer versions of distractions. So, what can an instructor do to manage mobile devices and laptops in the classroom in an effort to minimize the potential for distraction?

Long ago, a colleague recommended that I address the issue by banning such devices in the classroom.  While I understand the reasoning behind this particular suggestion, it left me curious about possible alternatives.  My initial brainstorming efforts turned up two options: (1) gear class time towards student engagement so that they aren't tempted to reach for the mobile devices, and/or (2) find a role for them in the classroom.  In my classes, students are regularly asking questions about a specific detail or reference a current event that I would need to take a look at before providing a response (a by-product of encouraging students to participate in class and find connections with the material).  With laptops and mobile devices, students can play the role of researchers while in the classroom, which is great for offering timely information with the added bonus of engaging students in the process.

The decision about which approach to take is an individual one and will depend on how the potential benefits stack up against the potential downsides in a given class.  "From Distraction to Engagement: Wireless Devices in the Classroom," written by Berlin Fang and published in Educause Quarterly, is an article that outlines both "restrictive" and "integrative" approaches to dealing with laptops and mobile devices in the classroom.   The discussion of integrative methods includes some ideas worth considering, including re-mixing class meetings to include more active learning (and less of the passive stuff) and contracting with students to elicit more self-regulation.  Responsibility of leading the discussion for the last 10 minutes of class?  That would be enough for me to make sure my phone isn't interfering with class!

A shorter article from Jennifer Carey on Edudemic's site, "5 Tips for Classroom Management With Mobile Devices," also highlights student engagement and setting clear expectations for technology use.  The "two eyes, two feet" tip is one worth repeating here:
"The biggest shift for educators when technology enters the classroom is that you cannot be static or stable. The best way to ensure that students stay on task is to walk around the room, look at the work they are doing, discuss and engage with them about their progress. The more active and mobile you are in the classroom, the easier it is to ensure that your students are working on what they should be."
As for the "Let Them Get the Giggles Out" tip, I was lucky enough to see it in action recently.  A member of our team was presenting design tips for digital posters to a class of 70+ students, and after providing a bit of an overview, he asked each group to open the program and encouraged them to use the tips and featured tools to make the tackiest, most outrageous digital poster possible.  And they did.  After fifteen minutes of shocking color combinations, titles not fit for public viewing, and Tyrannosaurus Rex eating baby penguins, the students moved on to collaborating with their groups on their actual research posters.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

What are students and instructors doing in an active learning classroom?

A chart highlighting this very comparison was included in "Dissecting the Classroom," an article published on February 10th in The Chronicle of Higher Education.  I was so taken by the chart's simple yet powerful statement that I even tracked down a printer and tacked the visual to my bulletin board where it has been waiting for months to be shared.  Here it is:

The data comes from two representative classes - one lecture-based and one that incorporates active learning strategies - that are a subset of the larger study conducted by Smith et al. (2013).  The graphic from the published study uses pie charts instead of bar graphs (see Figure 4 from the published article, available here), but the basic message is clear no matter how it is delivered.  In the lecture-based class, students are primarily listening and the instructor is, no surprise, primarily lecturing with an occasional response to a question or a follow up of some kind.  The other class, the interactive/active learning one, identifies a variety of activities for both students and the instructor; students are still listening, but they are also thinking, working in groups, asking and answering questions, and discussing.  Notice that lecturing is still happening in the active learning class too; however, it is mixed with eight other types of activities and it takes a back seat to guiding and discussing with students.

There are a number of additional takeaways and possible points of discussion here.  One is a reminder that "active learning" is a broad term or phrase - it doesn't refer to one specific activity.  Instead, it refers to students being engaged in the learning process because they are actively doing something.  It is ok to include lecture in a class that includes active learning.  (Sometimes it seems as though lecture and active learning cannot be used in the same statement, but this is not the case.)  Lecture can be a useful mode of instruction for certain things, but the key is to use lecture together with other activities.

For those who are interested in how the students' and instructors' classroom activities were tracked, the tracking form and related details are discussed in the Smith et al. (2013) article, published in CBE Life Sciences Education and accessible here, as well as the article from the Chronicle.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Driver or passenger?

Last week I grabbed Design for How People Learn, written by Julie Dirksen, off the CETL bookshelves.  Why I reached for this particular book was based, at least partly, on the way the font and color scheme jumped out at me (by design, no?) but also because I am always curious about how we learn.  I have a collection of casual observations from my own classrooms, both physical and virtual, but how well do those observations translate across situations?  The answer to that question isn't entirely clear just yet, but I just had to share something in the meantime.  Another question, in fact.  One that is posed by Ms. Dirksen in her book on p.181:
Let's say you have to drive to a destination that you've only been to once before.  Are you more likely to remember how to get there if, on your previous visit, you:
a. drove yourself, or
b. were a passenger in the car? 
This is posed to the reader within a section that focuses on helping the learner with transfer and application, and while I see how it fits into that particular discussion, I am also storing this question away for future discussions of active learning.  If the goal is for students to be able reach the destination, shouldn't we give them an opportunity to drive?  Being a passenger is often an enjoyable experience.  You have an opportunity to enjoy the view, free to check your phone, join in on conversation when you choose, etc.  But you also are passing along most of the responsibility of reaching the destination to the driver.  An active learning classroom, compared to a traditional classroom, offers students more opportunities to drive.  This is a helpful step.  However, there is another step that is necessary: the instructor has to be willing to step aside and allow learners to occupy the driver's seat.  The instructor is still fulfilling a useful role.  After all, who better to provide some guidance than someone who has been there before?

How can we structure a learning experience or a class period that provides students with an opportunity to drive?  Ms. Dirksen offers one possible strategy:
1. Work through some examples.
2. Have the students identify the concepts they saw in the examples.
3. Clarify the concepts and correct any misconceptions using the original examples as context.
4. Have the learners apply those concepts to further examples. 
That is, instead of telling the students all about the concepts up front, first provide them with an opportunity to recognize or discover the concepts, following up with discussion and additional application.

Dirksen, J. (2012). Design for How People Learn. Berkeley, CA: New Riders.