Why Technology Belongs in a Classroom

I recently read a great article by Clay Shirky “Why Clay Shirky Banned Laptops, Tablets and Phones from His Classroom“. It’s an interesting read, one I highly recommend that all individuals with classroom teaching / training responsibilities engage in.

Emphasis on the word “engage” in that sentence.

Photo from Global Partneship for Education via a Creative Commons License http://bit.ly/1vOeocV

Photo from Global Partneship for Education via a Creative Commons License http://bit.ly/1vOeocV

While I found Shirky’s article interesting, what I am finding even more interesting are the conversations that are emerging around the topic. I’ve seen multiple threads around social media in which someone shares the post, and people ultimately take sides of agreeing or disagreeing with the author. While I don’t agree with everything Shirky writes, I’m very appreciative of him starting a discussion through which we can all learn a great deal.

The title of this post is Why Technology Belongs in a Classroom, so I guess I’ve already tipped my hat as to what side of the debate I support. Let me share some reasons why I feel this way.

Square Pegs, Round Holes

The article starts with “I teach theory and practice of social media at NYU”. I found myself scrolling back to those words as I read the article, as it seemed to represent a disconnect. Banning technology in a class that focuses on the use of social media is like teaching auto repair but not letting the students enter the garage and touch the cars.

To me this speaks to a recurring problem I see in classroom education – the default starting point. If all of my classroom programs start from a place with a teacher/student lecture paradigm already in place, then yes, technology can and will be a distraction. But why do we need to start from that place? We need to break free from the lecture model as a default – it does have it’s place – and stop applying it as a default delivery method for teaching. Learning is about experiencing things and building them into new and existing contexts. Education needs to be about creating the experiences through which people can learn. Technology is an amazing tool to help build those experiences, if we embrace it and look at our classroom approaches differently.

The Elephant, The Rider, and the Workplace

Shirky references Jonathan Haidt’s metaphor of the elephant and the rider in his post. The metaphor refers to an elephant – your emotions – with a rider – your intellect- on top. The rider plans things logically, but the elephant is powerful and difficult to control. When the rider and the elephant are in conflict, the elephant usually wins. I’ve liked this metaphor since I first read about it in Julie Dirksen’s book “Design for How People Learn”. I completely agree with Shirky’s assessment that social media can be a distraction, and despite the rider logically wanting to pay attention, the lure of the text message or facebook notification popping up is irresistible to the elephant.

Which is another reason why I think the technology SHOULD be in the classroom, especially the college classroom.

I know, that doesn’t seem to make sense, does it? But hear me out.

Workplace education is mostly about task. Most workplace training departments focus on what you need to to do your job more effectively. Workplaces aren’t generally interested in elephants, riders, and helping workers better manage focus in an increasingly distracting world. I’m not saying that’s right; I’m just saying it’s the norm.

Photo from John Biehler via a Creative Commons License http://bit.ly/1nZytOs

Photo from John Biehler via a Creative Commons License http://bit.ly/1nZytOs

College education isn’t as focused on task. I see it as more focused on understanding and preparation for the task. College is also about prepping young people to be productive members of society in general, to help them navigate the world they will be entering.

Well, the world has changed a lot in the last decade. We are a society that is always plugged in, carrying the limitless information of the internet and the connections it enables with us at all times. Maintaining focus in this new world is a challenge, and something people do need to understand how to do.

How do workplaces support this? By blocking social media sites like facebook and Twitter from their IT firewalls. That’s the equivalent of putting a blindfold over the elephant’s eyes to distract him from food when he can still smell it. Just because I can’t access facebook on my desktop doesn’t make the ping from my phone less distracting, and it doesn’t help me maintain my focus. Banning technology from a classroom might help me maintain higher levels of focus in the moment, but it’s not helping me learn how to be focused in an always on world. If anything, it’s pretending that world doesn’t exist. If we’re going to prepare young people to be productive members of society while in college, I don’t think we should block the environment of the real world from their education.

Today’s educators need to understand where technology enhances classroom experiences and where it hinders it, so we can build programs that support both. More importantly, educators need to accept that sometimes technology doesn’t enhance or detract – it is just present as part of a new normal that we need to adjust to.

That brings me to my last point.

The World has Changed, Education Must Adapt

Photo via John Mott via a Creative Commons License http://bit.ly/1vOdRrv

Photo from John Mott via a Creative Commons License http://bit.ly/1vOdRrv

Technology has radically changed the ways we live our everyday life. We live in a constantly online world, with the connections of the internet as ever-present as the air we breathe. We often talk about how technology can enhance or distract from education as if technology is still something we are granting permission to enter our classrooms. That type of mindset holds us back as the world continues to move forward at breakneck speeds.

We need to change the questions we as educators ask ourselves about technology. Instead of asking “How can I do what I do in this new technological world?”, we should instead be asking “What opportunities does this new technology open up that can help me be more effective?”. Instead of trying to maintain the status quo in the face of change, we need to embrace the changes going on around us, strive to understand them, and adapt our practices accordingly.

Join the Conversation

As I said in the start of this post, I encourage anyone with classroom teaching / training responsibilities to engage in this discussion. Read Shirky’s post and the comments around it. Start conversations with your colleagues about the subject. This is an important topic, and hearing the perspectives of others will help you contextualize how you see technology enabling or distracting from your own work.

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17 Responses to Why Technology Belongs in a Classroom

  1. Jennifer Snyder October 8, 2014 at 4:55 pm #

    David, I love this post! I’ve facilitated a mobile activity (note activity and not class) to introduce learning professionals to the power of mobile learning in the classroom. It’s entirely interactive and the only lecture is how to get started and a facilitated debrief of what they’ve learned. Highly effective and fun!

    I almost protested at your comments on corporate learning, but your comment that it’s the “norm”
    I can’t argue. Thankfully, my employer doesn’t see it that way. My job is to “empower employees to improve their skills, careers, and lives.” Thanks for another great post!

    • David October 8, 2014 at 5:14 pm #

      Thanks for the comment Jennifer. I’m glad you have the opportunity to go beyond just task-driven learning in your work. I also like the example you shared about learning about using a tool by diving right in!

  2. Catherine Lombardozzi October 8, 2014 at 8:42 pm #

    I’ve been reading some of the same blog posts you have and debating the issue. Thank you for adding these thoughts to the camp that says we should not be pushing technology out of the classroom.

    I keep coming back to the fact that we’re working with adults and banning technology seems too directive. I agree that there are lots of ways we can incorporate technology – use it in the service of learning and performance – and I certainly do that when it makes sense. But when we are discussing key concepts or doing group work in a course, I still think the use of technology should be up to the students/participants.

    Most of my teaching these days is online – so distraction can be a huge problem and I’d like to do what I can to help people navigate that better. If I’m not keeping their attention on the matter at hand, then there’s a bigger problem than any that might be generated by a loose technology policy.

    I’m thinking about creating an amusing piece for my course introduction materials that reminds people that multitasking is a myth and distracting others in the class isn’t cool, but outright banning feels like an insult to their intelligence and agency as adults.

    • David October 14, 2014 at 1:27 pm #

      I agree that the first thing we should be looking at if students or trainees are disengaged is our self. We’re too often using an outdated teaching model that just isn’t compatible with the new world. We need to adapt.

  3. Meaghan Brennan October 9, 2014 at 1:03 am #

    Hi David
    I enjoyed reading your post.
    I must confess that it is only in recent years I began to allow technology in the classroom as I found it, personally distracting. I realized that in this day and age and given my target audience (GEN Y) my viewpoint was no longer appropriate. Whilst it can (and often is) a distraction, as the facilitator, it is up to myself to incorporate enough relevant activity and discussion to keep things on track. I have to confess, given technological changes, today I choose to focus on instructional design and not face to face lecturing, to truly “try to” make the learning experience memorable.

    I might share this article to those, who still sit on the other side of the fence!

    • David October 14, 2014 at 1:27 pm #

      Share away Meaghan – and thanks!

  4. Andy Nock October 9, 2014 at 4:33 am #

    Although not now currently employed for the company I had this experience from, I did a lot with using iPads for training in the Automotive Sector. I recently done a talk for the eLearning Network around this (slides to be added to slideshare soon….). But I also wrote a blog article on this with some ideas and thoughts found here: http://learningawaits.com/using-tablets-to-bring-face-to-face-training-into-the-21st-century/

    I think, used in the right way, tablets and technology can bring a lot of great learning opportunities to the ‘classroom’. Learners are getting more and more used to it as it’s now just part of life.

    • David October 14, 2014 at 1:28 pm #

      “It’s all just part of life”. Exactly. and we need to adapt.

  5. Tricia Ransom October 10, 2014 at 4:27 pm #

    This aroused my interest, so I read the original article by Clay Shirky, and left an extraordinarily long comment detailing my thoughts, ideas, feelings, etc. I think Shirky is wrong and, please forgive the pun, shirking his responsibilities to prepare his students for life outside of academia.

    Here is a link to my thoughts on Technology in the Classroom: http://patriciaransom.wordpress.com/2014/10/10/technology-and-classrooms/

    • David October 14, 2014 at 1:28 pm #

      Thanks for sharing Tricia!

  6. David Smith October 14, 2014 at 6:00 am #

    Having read the original post from Clay Shirky previously i was reflecting on how we use technology within the classroom and a lot of what you have hear Dave truly resonates with what i was thinking myself.

    Recently we had a post project discussion with a group of seasoned facilitators who were bemoaning the millennial audience trait of wanting to have laptops/tablets in the sessions and we concluded that they were actually taking notes digitally.

    By banning the technology altogether do we take away the ability for our learners to take notes how they want to take notes and force them to conform to old fashioned ways?

    Perhaps Shirky et al need to move with the times…

    • David October 14, 2014 at 1:33 pm #

      Absolutely. While banning tech would eliminate the distraction of the facebook *ping* and other non-essential distractions, it would in some ways create new distractions.

      For example, I work from home, so if the kids are sick at school, my phone is the first to ring. If I was in training and my device banned, I’d be distracted by wondering if I was missing an important message about the kids. That also applies to business.

      While I would love it if life stopped when people were in a learning environment, that’s unlikely. I can’t think of the last time I was in training that I didn’t receive an “I know you’re in training, but I just have a quick question…” call or email. That’s just reality.

      To your last point, I use Evernote for EVERYTHING. You ban technology, you’re banning one of my primary tools for learning.

  7. Joseph Gliddon October 20, 2014 at 7:39 am #

    I felt that Clay Shirky made some valid points – technology is distracting and the distracting effect on those near you is a cause for concern.
    However like you I feel that his solution is too drastic (and slightly treating the students like infants), a better solution would be to educate them in appropriate use of the technology. This is something we hardly ever do but ironically Shirky’s class on “Social Media” would be one where a lesson on technology etiquette would fit nicely into the curriculum.

    I wrote a blog post on Mobile etiquette http://wp.me/p1gWAk-9C a while back where I touch on the tension between educational tool/distraction. I think the behaviours I suggest there would also work with other tech like laptops.

  8. Ryan Tracey October 23, 2014 at 6:39 am #

    Dave, I agree that all this has much less to do with the technology than it has to do with the pedagogy.

    You declare that we need to break free from the lecture model as the default, and in general I support that shift in mindset. Clay’s class sounds like it could very well be delivered in a flipped classroom format, whereby the students consume the theory off-campus (perhaps via videos and readings), and bring their devices on-campus to experience whatever it is that the theory founds.

    Having said that, we aren’t privy to the challenges and restrictions facing Clay, which may make the traditional lecture format non-negotiable. Under such circumstances, the device ban is justifiable.

  9. urbie September 9, 2015 at 10:43 pm #

    Pedagogy comes first. Devices, whether they be pencils or iPads, are going to distract if they have no purpose. Devices become educational tools when the instructional designer and/or teacher takes the time to plan how to leverage them during the learning experience.

  10. Brian Nienhaus November 15, 2015 at 7:06 am #

    I took a Ph.D. in mass communication theory in 1993. I surveyed the academic job market and decided to continue to teach business communication rather than find a job in communication studies. Why? My dissertation was a response to a simple question, posed before the days of the internet and devices: Why, I asked, do the media treat us with such disrespect? My answer was also simple: Media firms treated us with disrespect because their goal was not to inform us but to gather and sell our attention. That goal kept them from soliciting and attending to feedback from us, the audience, and meant that whatever they produced as news, it would not be based on knowledge of what we might want or need t know.

    The main reason I left mass communication back then were two: I insisted we study media as a relationship between individuals and firms. The field made one specialize: You studied either individuals (in the aggregate, with surveys) or firms, but not both. The field was not prepared to discuss mass communication in this way.

    Now, late in my academic career (and having thoroughly enjoyed teaching business communication for 20+ years), I have returned to mass communication, which these days is Web 2.0. What I find in your essay, and in the blog Tricia Ransom referred to in her comment above, is what I find a lot in current writing on the Web, viz, that it’s all about how the individual uses it. That is, you folks are following the same practice established long ago, which is to see and talk about only part of the empirical object. The difference is that you do so in the context of increasing resistance by your readers, many of whom are academics, and almost all of whom find devices in the classroom intrusive and damaging to student performance. I wish you well in your effort to fight against this new tide, but I don’t think you’ll succeed.

    The use of web devices is financed in the same way commercial television and radio are, through the sale of human attention. That means that a device in the classroom pits students and the professor in a competition with highly capitalized firms that employ or contract the best artists and coders in their effort to steal students’ attention from us. It gives me a small sense of satisfaction to note that even someone like Clay Shirky notices this, given his investment in the promotion of devices in the past.

    Going forward, I would ask faculty not to stop with the classroom. The problem existed before devices reached classrooms but most faculty did not notice. Comparative educational attainment for U.S. students has been weak for decades, and especially weak if you throw in per-capita investment in education as a control. Arguably this has been because once U.S. students reached adolescence, family control weakened and the attention economy took over, producing students increasingly incapable of sustained thought and attention once they reached college.

    You may wish for faculty and students to find the right way to incorporate ‘technology’ into learning and work, but some countries on this earth are taking a different path. They are limiting the sale of their students’ attention, and producing larger numbers of stem and other professionals, at lower cost, as a result. The last time I checked, the systems that support our way of life have become increasingly complex. My prediction is that it will be professionals from those countries that will be called on to do the work of maintaining these systems. That would make me sad as I am a citizen of this country and would wish it to do well in our increasingly competitive, global world.


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