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Digital Distraction or Helpful Classroom tool?

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By U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Tracy DeMarco

By Katie Stansberry

I was in the middle of a lecture on blogging today when an all-too-familiar sound broke the flow of my presentation – the mechanical music of a ringing cell phone. To make the situation all the more annoying, the phone belonged to me. Despite my daily reminder to students to make sure their phones are silent, I’d forgotten to turn my own ringer off.

The wrath of teachers dealing with mobile technology is well documented. One YouTube video, which shows a professor grabbing a student’s ringing cell phone and smashing it into bits without breaking stride in his lecture, has received more than 4.5 million hits. Although I know many of my colleagues would disagree, I just cannot empathize with their cell phone frustrations. I also have never asked students not to use laptops during class and I fully expect students to email me more often than they come into my office hours.

The benefits of increased technology in the classroom far outweigh the tempting distractions that come along with laptops, iPads, Smartphones, and even video games. The problem is that, in general, our expectations of what constitutes appropriate education lags behind what is possible with new technologies.

If a teacher expects students to learn by memorizing raw facts and parroting responses, then there is no question that new technology could distract a class from that mission. However, if an instructor instead acts as a learning facilitator who empowers students to learn by showing them how to apply the wealth of information accessible through the web then classroom technology can be an integral part of the teaching process.


I teach this term in a computer lab with an absolutely horrific setup. There is no easy spot to lecture from and, when facing their computer screens, the students sit in a semi-circle with their backs to one another. While the room is equipped with fast desktop computers, high-speed broadband and the latest software, the actual design of the space is far more suitable for independent work than a collaborative class environment.

The classroom design is indicative of the outdated notion that computer work is something that must be done in isolation. In fact, I’ve found that my smaller classes (usually about 16 students) form strong bonds over the course of the term. They work through the process of learning new programs, software and web applications together. The students who are more technologically inclined act as guides for students who are newbies to the world of new media.

In large classes, encouraging the use of new media can also contribute to lively and interactive discussions. Twitter can be a fantastic tool to encourage involvement among students who may be hesitant to speak out in a 100+ student lecture course. As a graduate teaching assistant, I’ve monitored a live Twitter feed for large classes, allowing for real time discussions in conjunction with the primary lecture. It also makes it possible to answer questions immediately and adjust the lecture as appropriate if students are particularly interested in a topic or having a difficult time with a particular concept.

Welcoming technology in the classroom requires granting students a certain degree of freedom. But rather than fighting what is bound to be a losing battle, we should accept that education must change to better prepare students for the wired world in which we live.

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