Thursday, December 12, 2019

NYT: "Screens in the Classroom: Tool or Temptation?"

Another article, this time from the New York Times, discussing the controversy over laptops, smartphones, and other digital devices in the classroom. The article recognizes a growing consensus in recent years among teachers reflecting a move away from classroom policies at the extremes (i.e., either a total ban on digital devices or, on the other hand, making no effort to supervise student use of them during class) and toward adopting a more proactive and thoughtful approach that recognizes these devices can be very effective learning tools when deployed strategically (while asking students to stow them away at other times). 

Screens in the Classroom: Tool or Temptation?

Smartphones and other devices have long been maligned as distractions in university classrooms. But when employed strategically, many educators find them useful.


Karen Huxtable-Jester, who teaches in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences at the University of Texas at Dallas, knows technology’s distractible downside. Once, while observing a lecture, Professor Huxtable-Jester discovered that a group of students had been watching a movie instead of their instructor.


“In years past, I was fully on board with the idea of banning technology use in my classes,” she said, making exceptions for students with disabilities who needed help. Over time, though, she became more flexible: “Every now and then, I could say, ‘Can we look something up?’”


The experience of Professor Huxtable-Jester, who is also the associate director at the university’s Center for Teaching and Learning, demonstrates evolving debates on whether smartphones, tablets and laptops divert students’ attention from the lesson at hand. “People develop very strong opinions,” she said. “The dividing line is everyone wants to do what is right, but no one knows what that is.”


Many professors and education professionals are discovering that rather than distract, strategically applied devices increase engagement with students, especially those with learning disabilities, who are on the autism spectrum and for whom English is a second language.


Brad Turner, vice president and general manager of global education and literacy for Benetech, a nonprofit educational software company that creates tools for students with dyslexia and other reading issues, said “technology is the great equalizer” that allowed “every student to learn in the way they need to learn or want to learn, to the greatest extent that they want to learn.”


That is the experience for Pamela Stemberg, an adjunct assistant professor of English at City College of New York who also teaches at Hostos Community College in the Bronx. “My students were the reason I started using technology because they were actually using it to look up things,” she said, including words they had never seen before. She likened this to its old-school analog experience: “Weren’t you told when you were a kid, ‘Go to the dictionary’?”


“Using technology in the classroom really enhances the whole class,” Professor Stemberg said.


Diverse backgrounds and varied exposure to the English language are part of why her students seek auxiliary help. Many are immigrants or American-born children of immigrants speaking another language at home. Even those from English-speaking countries do not always understand word nuances in poetry and literature. By using devices, Professor Stemberg said, students “are taking control of their learning; they become more engaged with it and they have more skin in the game.”


Guli Rahimova is a sophomore psychology major in Professor Stemberg’s Writing for the Sciences class at City College. Ms. Rahimova, whose family comes from Uzbekistan, said she and other students did not drift off when using devices in the classroom. “We are so focused on the group work trying to make it during the class time that we have together,” she said, “that we don’t have time to text and talk. We are really engaged in our work.”


. . . . 


“When you ban technology, you close off access between the classroom and the world outside,” Professor Greenhow said. “And on the other hand, when you open up the classroom with technology, you are giving students the ability to connect to translation services, with databases to do research in real time, with other people they can connect with to get questions answered, because the instructor is only one person.”


Would students’ attention still wander if they had a device in their hand? Professor Greenhow acknowledged that it could still happen, but added that educators had a say in the matter.


“If you are finding your students are being distracted on their cellphones or on laptops, you have to ask yourself: What am I doing in my teaching that is not engaging?” she said. “How can I give them opportunities to participate so they don’t feel the need to disappear down the rabbit hole?”

. . . . 

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