Technology in education is the biggest change in teaching we will ever see. For years, policy makers, teachers, parents and students alike have been weighing the potential benefits of technology in education against its risks and consequences. But now the debate is more pressing than ever, as curricula increasingly incorporate technology and professors experiment with new teaching methods. On one hand, using technology in the clasroom allows you to experiment in pedagogy, democratize the classroom and better engage students. On the other hand, some argue technology in the classroom can be distracting and even foster cheating.

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What does it mean to use technology in the classroom?

Students are digital natives. They’ve grown up with technology; it’s woven into their lives. But using technology in the classroom isn’t just about digital devices in class — it relates to anything that facilitates an interaction between teacher and student. Classroom engagement is at an all-time low and lecturers are competing against countless diversions from phones, tablets and laptops. Technology could be seen as the culprit, or it could be harnessed to improve engagement and effectiveness.

“Digital education is generating new learning opportunities as students engage in online, digital environments and as faculty change educational practices through the use of hybrid courses, personalized instruction, new collaboration models and a wide array of innovative, engaging learning strategies.

“Furthermore, a 21st century view of learner success requires students to not only be thoughtful consumers of digital content, but effective and collaborative creators of digital media, demonstrating competencies and communicating ideas through dynamic storytelling, data visualization and content curation.”

— David Goodrum, director of academic technology and information services, Oregon State University, in Campus Technology

With that in mind, this article looks at the pros of using technology in the classroom as well as the cons—and it addresses how to combat some of the pitfalls you might come across when adopting new technology-based teaching and assessment techniques.

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The pros:

  1. Using technology in the classroom allows you to experiment more in pedagogy and get instant feedback.

  2. Technology allows for more active learning; you can increase engagement through online polling or asking quiz questions during lectures (with instantaneous results). Subject matter is dynamic and timely with digital textbooks that embed links to relevant materials or student-maintained course wikis. Whether adding a single tool for a specific project or term, or making a more dramatic change such as a flipped classroom, being well-versed in technology can help build credibility with students, and even fellow colleagues.

  3. Technology in the classroom helps ensure full participation.

  4. Online polling and other tools help to engage all students, including shy students who wouldn’t normally raise their hand in class. Online engagement systems allow you to regularly check in with students for feedback on course materials and assignments; data analytics could be used to help spot areas where students might be struggling, so you can adjust the coursework accordingly.

    One active learning technique that technology can facilitate is offering students quizzes (not for credit). At the beginning of the class, you can gauge familiarity with a subject by taking a quick, anonymous quiz on the subject you’re teaching—and this can also inform and direct what you need to focus on. At the end of the class, setting the same quiz again allows all students to gauge their learning.

  5. There are countless resources for enhancing education and making learning more fun and effective.

  6. From apps and e-textbooks to organizational platforms, there’s no shortage of tools that can transform the classroom. Some instructors are turning toward classroom ‘gamification,’ the use of competitive scenarios, and the distribution of points and rewards to make the classroom more fun and engaging. The key to ensuring these methods are also effective is designing them to support the course learning objectives.

    Some gamification tips include role play—where students are asked to pose arguments on behalf of historical figures or scientific concepts—and introducing healthy competition. Technology can greatly aid the implementation, and indeed the assessment, of classroom games.

  7. Technology can automate a lot of your tedious tasks.

  8. Automation can speed up tedious, time-consuming tasks, such as keeping track of student attendance and performance. Engagement tools can help streamline grading for writing assignments, discussions and participation, as well as answer common student questions, which otherwise could seem daunting due to their objective nature.

    The canonical example of this? One professor at Georgia Tech actually coded an artificially intelligent teaching assistant. Jill Watson was able to answer a selection of student questions and pass any that ‘she’ couldn’t handle to a real person.

  9. With technology in the classroom, your students have instant access to fresh information that can supplement their learning experience.

  10. There is value in having textbooks and course materials that are always up to date, which can even include additions suggested by students. This also fosters a more collaborative learning environment; students, networked together online, can share information, work together on group projects, and interact with the instructor.

  11. We live in a digital world, and technology is a life skill.

Being digitally literate is more than obtaining “isolated technological skills,” according to the NMC Horizon Report: 2017 Higher Education Edition. Rather, it’s about “generating a deeper understanding of the digital environment, enabling intuitive adaptation to new contexts and co-creation of content with others.” Creating presentations, learning to differentiate reliable from unreliable sources on the Internet and maintaining proper online etiquette are all vital skills that students can learn in the classroom. It can also help universities deliver better ROI on student education (and remain relevant).

The cons

  1. Technology in the classroom can be a distraction.

  2. College students learn less when they use computers or tablets during lectures, writes Susan Dynarski, a professor of education, public policy and economics at the University of Michigan, in the New York Times. “They also tend to earn worse grades. The research is unequivocal: Laptops distract from learning, both for users and for those around them.”

    But Matthew Numer, an assistant professor in the School of Health and Human Performance at Dalhousie University, says in an article for The Chronicle of Higher Education that banning laptops is an “insult” to students: Our students are capable of making their own choices, and if they choose to check Snapchat instead of listening to your lecture, then that’s their loss. Besides, it’s my responsibility as an educator to ensure that my lecture is compelling. If my students aren’t paying attention, if they’re distracted, that’s on me.”

    This makes the notion of creating a structure and culture of respect all the more important from day one. Identify specific projects, times during class, and your intentions for allowing the use of technology in the classroom. Creating expectations and guidelines for students, and sticking to them, will be important for them in respecting your boundaries.

  3. Technology can disconnect students from social interactions.

  4. Many people are skeptical of technology and what it does to students’ (and everyone else’s) ability to verbally communicate.

    By creating assignments in class that use both technological tools as well as oral presentations and group collaboration, students will learn to be dynamic in how they learn and interact with others.

    Sara Eskridge, history professor at Randolph College in Virginia, believes that technology is a tool to be used in the classroom, rather than an end in itself. The teacher is in control—and knows how to bring the best out in the student.

  5. Technology can foster cheating in class and on assignments.

  6. While students have always found ways to cheat, the digital age makes it even easier — from copying-and-pasting someone else’s work to hiring an essay-writer from an online essay mill.

    While technology could be seen as yet another avenue for cheating, it’s possible to structure assignments and exams in a way that makes cheating difficult, or make exams open-book and focus on problem-solving and mastery rather than retention. Some classroom software allows you set questions that are subtly different for every student, making them focus on the technique rather than the answer; and software such as Turnitin is already well-established in most higher education settings.

  7. Students don’t have equal access to technological resources.

  8. Some students can’t afford iPads or even the textbooks required for class. For these students, point them in the direction of library or community resources, or create assignments that allow them to work in groups and share resources.

    Don’t make technology the focus of your class, and don’t make it a barrier. Incorporate it in a holistic and inclusive manner.

  9. The quality of research and sources they find may not be top-notch.

  10. The Internet is a blessing and a curse. Your students may need guidance on identifying proper sources and unreliable sources. Many campuses have writing centers that can help with this. You can also use OERs, which are open educational resources in the public domain that anyone can freely use, copy and adapt; they range from textbooks to lecture notes, examinations and assignments.

    How can you tell if content is written by a competent authority? Here are some tips on finding OERs, and Top Hat’s Marketplace is also a reliable source of OER you can use.

  11. Lesson planning might become more labor-intensive with technology.

The task of adapting technology into your classroom can seem daunting or overwhelming. In many ways though, using technology can become as natural to you as any daily activity.

When you’re choosing classroom technology, it’s important to engage with the software vendor and make sure you have the support in place. Some questions you should ask include whether they supply training or onboarding, and what their reliability statistics and support functions are—after all, you don’t need to be the person all the students come to if the technology goes offline.

But the most important thing is to allow yourself time to learn how to use something, and make sure you ask for, and receive the support that you need.

Technology in the classroom: The final verdict

It’s clear that the benefits outweigh the cons. But the key to technology in the classroom is always going to be the teacher-student relationship, because that’s where the education happens. Technology can be a highly effective tool, but that’s all it is — a tool. In today’s hyper-connected world, sensible use of technology can enhance education.

Technology is not meant to replace the teacher. Rather, the idea is to create a flexible learning environment that breeds innovation. It shifts the classroom experience from the ‘sage-on-a-stage’ approach to a more collaborative learning environment. The success of such endeavors will ultimately depend upon how technology is applied to keep students engaged.

It can be frustrating and time-consuming, but in the end, technology in education can open doors to new experiences, new discoveries, and new ways of learning and collaborating.

Students’ cellphones and digital devices aren’t bad for education. Learn how to exploit them to improve engagement and keep your class focused.

 

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Vawn Himmelsbach

Vawn Himmelsbach

Vawn Himmelsbach is a journalist based in Toronto.