Discussions about the effects of technology, both positive and negative are not new. What is new is that we live in a time where it is developing at such a fast pace that the research into it’s effects can barely keep up. We have technology which begets the new technology. Cars could not make better cars.
The internet, computer processing speeds, social networking sites and mobile technology are exposing us daily to new ways of accessing information and communicating. Many of these technologies have been and are being adopted in the workplace and in education. It is not surprising then that discussions are taking place between lecturers, students and policy makers about which technologies to embrace and which to avoid.
This is Part I of a series wherein I would like to share some recent discussions, publications and presentations on the effects of new technology on society and by extension on learning and teaching.
To ban or not to ban
Last June I was invited by the Educational Committeeof Sociology to discuss the effects of students using laptops and tablets during university lectures. The question raised was whether laptops/tablets should be allowed in the lecture hall or whether they provide too much distraction and should therefore be banned.
Some benefits to laptops/tablets being used during lectures were mentioned, such as:
- advantages to taking notes digitally
- being able to access the PowerPoint slides and lecture readings from the online learning platform (Blackboard)
- being able to Google unfamiliar terms or related information.
Other benefits, currently less widely applied, are opportunities to increase student-lecturer interaction (gathering feedback or questions from the students via internet based tools) or student-student interaction (the sharing of lecture notes online).
The negative usages and effects mentioned were:
- bright screens and typing sounds distract from PowerPoint presentations and the lecturer
- internet access gives way to a variety of distractions such as chatting, facebooking, gaming, and emailing.
And it was mostly the distraction component which was argued with most fervor by the committee members. Students who are emailing, gaming, doing all sorts of non-lecture related activities on their laptops/tablets can lead to:
- less effective learning during the lecture
- distraction amongst students in close vicinity to the laptop/tablet
- demotivation of the lecturer who sees his/her students not paying attention.
Distraction in the lecture hall is a real problem. But it has been a problem long before laptops or tablets existed.
There are those who argue that the structure of lecture based teaching has outlived it’s effectiveness. Some research underpins lecture style teaching as one of the least effective teaching methodologies available.
Although reflecting on the effectiveness of lecture style teaching may be useful, it is valid to say that laptops/tablets which can access the internet are an extremely powerful source of distraction. Gaming, facebooking, chatting are activities with a high stimulus which play on our reward systems (see Part II). Counter this with a two hour academic lecture, and it is easily understood why internet access is a real problem to combat.
The question is how to deal with the distraction the internet provides.
One option is to ban laptops during lectures. Many universities have chosen for this option. However this approach may be akin to throwing the baby out with the bath water. Students who benefit from taking notes digitally, suffer under this policy. Digital notes can be more easily edited, reorganized, reused and shared for learning purposes. Plus many students find they can take more comprehensive notes digitally than with pen and paper.
Another option is to disable internet access in the lecture halls. This is a compromise to allow students to take notes digitally, but avoids the access to outside or internet based stimuli.
The downside of disabling internet access is that distraction from internet based activities is one which students will be facing in their future careers. Burn out caused by information overload is becoming more and more common. A professor I spoke to recently mentioned that colleagues signal a possible burn out amongst their peers by saying “Have you heard, so-and-so doesn’t answer his/her email anymore”.
Dealing with the problem by creating a temporary “unnatural state”, a non-internet-accessible lecture hall, might increase the teaching effectiveness during lectures, but does not provide students with the skills to deal with distraction from internet outside of class, or later in their careers.
Inspired by a fellow learning technology professional at Oxford University, I suggested to the committee to involve the students in tackling the problem. A professor could, at the beginning of his/her lecture series, raise the issue, explain what negative effects it can have and request suitable behaviour during the lectures. Thereby including it amongst the unwritten rules of how to behave in a lecture hall setting. My expectation is that most students will respect the request, and those that don’t can be called to order by the lecturer or by fellow students.
Digital academic skills
This discourse reinforced my belief that there is a task for universities to provide students with specific digital academic skills. Training digital literacy. Teaching them how to harvest the benefits of new technologies for information curation, information access, collaboration, communicating and presenting arguments. But harvest without being overwhelmed by the opportunities or burdened by the information overload.
This is a task which I think suits a future facing university. One which identifies and applies beneficial new technologies, while also empowering today’s students to master the challenges which new technologies bring. Recognizing that even digital natives can do with some extra guidance in the speedily changing digital environment of today.
Let me end with an appropriate quote from a presentation I will be referring to in Part II:
“Wellbeing in our new digitized environment is really about transferring all of our offline everyday wisdom into this new world.”