Center for Teaching and Learning

October 21, 2014

Great question. Let’s Google it

By Maya Smorodinsky

Student sitting infront of a laptopTo begin every course, we implore students to silence their cell phones, refrain from Facebook, and abstain from lap-texting (you, in the third row, despite your best intentions, crotch-staring is not a sign of active learning). When students inevitably flout these policies, it is frustrating and disappointing. It may be a surprise, then, that I encourage (and sometimes require) personal laptops and tablets in my small, seminar-style writing classes.

True, I watch students giggle or smirk at their screens when I know I haven’t been funny in the last fifty minutes. And I am certain someone is doing math homework at least once every class period.

Nevertheless: while technology possesses high distraction potential, it also can foster inclusive learning. Technology can bridge the gaps between different learning styles and abilities, levels of language acquisition, and education backgrounds. Once, I watched a student painstakingly alternate between cellphone and paper prompt. I am glad I realized, before chastising the student, that they were using a translator app to decipher the assignment. Could a laptop, where the student could quickly tab between the assignment and a translation site, be more beneficial for this student’s learning?

Based on experience and theory, here are some positive aspects of using personal technologies in small classrooms that function through discussion, small group work, reading, and/or writing, or even larger classrooms incorporating group work or group projects into daily lessons:

STUDENTS TRANSFER SKILLS BY USING THE SAME TECHNOLOGY AT HOME AND IN CLASS

  • Students don’t write papers by hand. They type them. Fast. More efficient class brainstorming and note-taking can be accomplished with a keyboard handy.
  • Students have cloud access to all their work without toting around copies of past writing or reading assignments. Lowering anxiety for busy students creates brain space for engaging with and accessing more class material.

STUDENTS LEARN BEST WHEN MATERIALS ARE PRESENTED MULTIMODALLY

  • Not everyone can learn just by listening – visual cues are necessary for many learners. More so, multimodal teaching enhances skill acquisition for students of various linguistic and literacy backgrounds. By explaining a concept vocally, mapping it on the board, and posting a version online for students to reference while you present, different learners can access the material in their own mode. In addition, students may clarify or extend the material in real time. Non-native speakers can engage with academic writing by referring to outside resources to buttress their learning.

TECHNOLOGY CAN ENHANCE STUDENT COLLABORATION AND GROUP WORK

  • Students thrive when given the opportunity to air ideas in low stakes settings like small group discussion. Making these dialogues visible to the whole class further solidifies that learning. Utilizing real-time applications, like comment and chat functions on Google Docs, creates a community feeling within the classroom. Students can respond to each other individually or in groups; shy students or students who process information at a different pace can engage and not feel silenced; and non-native speakers can be immersed into academic language through both audio and visual cues.
  • Online discussion boards keep groups accountable for their work to the rest of the class. They can work to diverse strengths: one student types, while another processes information verbally, while a third does some quick Googling to enrich the conversation.

Some potential drawbacks:

STRUGGLING WITH “ALL EYES ON ME”

  • It’s not easy to transition between laptop and pure eye contact activities. Our screen-obsessed culture doesn’t put them away easily. One solution could be to establish clear vocabulary describing the activity with cues about what to do. For example: “Let’s transition to “screen-less” small group discussion.”

REQUIRING LAPTOPS IS AN EQUITY ISSUE

  • Not all of our students have access to a laptop or tablet for the entire quarter. CTE will only loan laptops for a week or two at a time. Carving out one or two days a week for screen time or requesting a campus computer lab may help.

STUDENTS MIGHT NOT KNOW HOW TO USE TECHNOLOGY FOR THE PURPOSE OF LEARNING

  • We can’t assume students know the difference between a Wiki page and an online academic source. We can’t assume they know how to use Google Docs or even a twitter hashtag. Teaching and practicing those skills must become part of the classroom culture.
  • This requires some training, but luckily there are a plethora of manuals and worksheets available online already. Further, learning how to use these online tools is transferable across classrooms and disciplines.

DISTRACTION MAY OUTWEIGH STUDENT LEARNING

  • This is the most well-rehearsed concern. And even students recognize this as a potential downside to using technology!
  • Hold students accountable at every stage of the lesson. You can ensure that each activity has a “product” students must post online and on time – in this way, they won’t have time to get distracted. Micromanaging small group work – in general – prevents students from wandering off-topic.

About the Author

Maya Smorodinsky has taught English literature and English composition at the University of Washington for six years. She is currently English faculty at Shoreline Community College. Her pedagogical interests include enhancing classroom learning through diverse and inclusive curricula, and a greater attention to media literacy. She is currently pursuing her PhD in English at the University of Washington, with a focus in migration literature and neoliberal multiculturalism.