Should journalism educators ban students from using technology in class?

A friend and fellow educator sent a shock through my system last week. He told me he was so frustrated by rude and distracted behavior on digital devices in his journalism labs that he imposes a ban on laptops, tablets and cell phones turned on during class.

Not known for subtlety, I asked, “Are you insane?”

The interaction led to a productive conversation about digital distractions and effective teaching practices in a connected age. Somewhere in the combination of our approaches and their devices is a sweet spot that can move learning forward.

My ban-imposing friend, Tim Brown from the University of Central Florida, has a solid point. Every college instructor I know has been frustrated by Facebook pictures or ESPN box scores popping up on a monitor as glassy-eyed students disengage themselves from the lecture. And Brown is no Luddite. He teaches journalism in the digital sphere every day.

“My main reason for banning technology in the classroom is that I’ve found it distracting, both for me and for many students,” he told me. “I’ve found that many students (not all, but enough) spend more time on social networking pages and YouTube than they do on taking notes. Looking at videos or Facebook timelines either distracts those around them or leads to conversations that have nothing to do with the class.”

True that. I’m especially swayed by the idea that these disruptions affect other students who are not off to the social races on their own. If I’m trying to concentrate but my group partner is reading a Kim Kardashian Twitter feed, I’m interrupted through no fault of my own.

But I took it to Brown with a larger point. Digital and social media are critical to the future of journalism. Banning technology in the classroom sends the message that they’re something less than that. It also sends the message that the only solution to wandering minds is to remove all temptation. Our students today, after all, will face these same tech enticements as professionals tomorrow.

I would argue instead that the solution is to give those minds something that keeps them from drifting away. In the same way Brown strives to make lectures interactive through discussion, we can extend the conversation into digital realms. Why not shake up the traditional lecture format? If I had to listen to myself drone on from PowerPoint for 75 minutes, I’d be on Facebook too.

At the recent (and excellent) Journalism Interactive conference for journalism educators, I learned about a number of ways to creatively attack this issue and improve my teaching.

Ron Yaros, a multiplatform journalism professor at the University of Maryland, fully integrates technology into all levels of his teaching. Key to his approach is the idea that his time together with students is not for delivering material but for exploring and expanding it through discussion and interaction — both live and digital. He’s moved beyond a lecture model and employs tech tools liberally in collaboration with students. For instance, students post ideas, questions and links to a Twitter feed that is then discussed in class.

“The overall blended approach of my courses is designed so that many of the face-to-face meetings are not to introduce new material but to discuss related material students have already researched between class meetings,” Yaros told me. “I use multiple technologies between meetings with focused assignments. This goes well beyond assigned readings or watching a canned video lecture because students use a course iPhone/Droid app to collect and share information from the field.”

Yaros pours a ton of time into his course prep, reinventing assignments and approaches regularly. That, to me, is why he’s wildly successful. New technologies give us new opportunities, but also more work. Students stay off their Facebook timelines in Yaros’ classes because he’s giving them meaningful interactivity.

“In short, I design every weekly topic and guide every classroom discussion with the information that students seek, select and share,” he said.

He advises others not to tackle too much too often, though. He chooses one course at a time to “invert” from a traditional lecture approach to something digitally interactive. He tries to build assignments that have a shelf life from term to term, so he’s not reinventing too often. And he employs automated quizzes in every class to hold students accountable. If they miss something in service of checking out their Facebook feed, they pay a grade price when they’re quizzed on it.

Technology in the classroom is not about “banning” or “allowing.” It’s about engaging. This could not be more important for budding journalists to learn.

We can each find ways to effectively incorporate technology into our classes and get students to use tech tools for learning purposes. I’m going to test out some new ideas in my intro course this semester and try to increase our engagement.

  • Segment content with breaks for activities: I’ve never been convinced about the efficacy of lectures. This semester, I’m going to try to break the information I provide into 15- or 20-minute chunks and then split students into groups with an online activity or two. For instance, in our session on critical thinking, I will have them debunk some prominent Internet lore.
  • Interact with Twitter live: At the conference I mentioned, one of the most productive moments occurred when a number of people started tweeting concerns that a panel on entrepreneurship did not include any women. Moderator Robert Hernandez, who teaches at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, was monitoring the feed and turned the conversation specifically to that question. The panel probably wouldn’t have otherwise addressed that critical gender issue. That experience taught me that inviting students to tweet during my classes can take me in productive directions.
  • Increase advance work: I’m going to adopt Yaros’ approach of having students blog and tweet about course materials before we meet and then expand on those posts in discussion. This should be particularly helpful with readings, as we often have little time to discuss them in class.
  • Take their temperature: Digital tools like Poll Everywhere should help me gauge my students’ opinions on everything from PolitiFact’s latest ruling to the cultural importance of Justin Bieber. (If you’re doubting the pop star’s relevance in a journalism class, think about the news value of prominence.)

My tech-suspicious friend Brown told me he’s relaxing his ban as he enters a new semester. He’s going to try to keep technology use focused on class materials, not on YouTube sensations. “I do want to allow for people finding information during class that can contribute,” he said, “but at the same time I don’t want to compete with cats playing piano.”

Yaros, meanwhile, plans to “learn more about how the next generation of information consumers uses newer technologies in different ways to engage with digital content.”

I’d love to hear what you do in your classrooms to engage students through technology and how that relates to larger questions about journalism and society. Please share your thoughts in the comments section.

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  • http://twitter.com/kbculver kbculver

    An interesting set of suggestions from an anthropologist at UW-Madison: http://johnhawks.net/weblog/topics/teaching/resources/twitter-best-practices-2012.html

  • http://twitter.com/centennialjourn centennialjournalism

    I did try Polleverywhere in class on Monday, and the students seemed to like it a lot, although some don’t have free unlimited texting which i didn’t take into consideration right away, but then one student said he would like to use the webpoll function to save money, and we tried it but my connectivity in class didn’t work. I will try it again on Wednesday and see if the next section of the radio news course works. As for the comment below about tech tools being banned, while I agree that taking notes in a notebook is a required skill, in our courts the reporters can use their mobiles to take notes and I often see them doing so. They can also tweet live from certain trials, depending on the judge.

  • http://twitter.com/centennialjourn centennialjournalism

    I did try Polleverywhere in class on Monday, and the students seemed to like it a lot, although some don’t have free unlimited texting which i didn’t take into consideration right away, but then one student said he would like to use the webpoll function to save money, and we tried it but my connectivity in class didn’t work. I will try it again on Wednesday and see if the next section of the radio news course works. As for the comment below about tech tools being banned, while I agree that taking notes in a notebook is a required skill, in our courts the reporters can use their mobiles to take notes and I often see them doing so. They can also tweet live from certain trials, depending on the judge.

  • http://twitter.com/centennialjourn centennialjournalism

    I did try Polleverywhere in class on Monday, and the students seemed to like it a lot, although some don’t have free unlimited texting which i didn’t take into consideration right away, but then one student said he would like to use the webpoll function to save money, and we tried it but my connectivity in class didn’t work. I will try it again on Wednesday and see if the next section of the radio news course works. As for the comment below about tech tools being banned, while I agree that taking notes in a notebook is a required skill, in our courts the reporters can use their mobiles to take notes and I often see them doing so. They can also tweet live from certain trials, depending on the judge.

  • Anonymous

    There’s a more prosaic reason for banning tech tools in some classes, particularly reporting classes: Students need to learn how to take notes without having a smartphone or iPad  handy. Those are harder to use in the rain, or under fire, or in courtrooms where technology is banned. If students don’t learn to take notes in class, on paper, they can’t take them in the field. This of course applies if they’re not filming or recording the news event. But even then, they need to take notes, to know what they have and where it is in the interview.

  • http://www.smallbusinessgrants.net/small-business-grants/ Small Business Grant

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  • http://www.smallbusinessgrants.net/small-business-grants/ Small Business Grant

    Thank you for the information you provide. Very nice website. Really descriptive post you have shared with us. Thanks a lot for sharing. Will check back later for more of your articles.

  • Anonymous

    I taught during the fall semester as a visiting professor at Washington and Lee. I told the students – at the beginning of the term – about being distracted by technology and viewing their tech tools during certain class periods. During the term, I only had to mention my order one time. Because of the non-lecture, business/career-oriented style of the class, students (juniors and seniors) were able to use their phones, ipads and laptops to research daily trends, current news and to gather information for in-class individual and team assignments.  Students have to be held accountable to follow the instructor’s rules.  

  • Anonymous

    I couldn’t disagree with you more. My inability to keep students off Facebook while I am teaching is the single most frustrating thing I deal with, and my course is on multimedia reporting! I would shut off access to Facebook in a heartbeat if I could, but sadly I do not have those tools available to me. And because we use professional-level tools to produce our multimedia – Final Cut Pro and Photoshop – students who spend their class time playing on Facebook and surfing the web fall behind very quickly in my class.

  • Anonymous

    Your proposals are nonsense. They are checking friends’ material. I have taught multimedia journalism for 15 years. I need students’ attention to make certain they can do it.

  • http://twitter.com/poorerthandead Dave Griffith

    Your question–to what extent does allowing students to use their laptops and iPhones in class become a hindrance to learning?–is an important one, but it’s more of a discipline issue, like not talking when others are talking, or bringing your book to class.  If you set forth clear policies on your syllabus about the use/abuse of technology in the classroom, and then actually enforce those policies, then the problem will eventually go away, and students will get the idea that they must be more disciplined.

    Some argue that many students these days learn so differently than previous generations that we have to rethink traditional ways of teaching (lecturing, labs, seminar style discussion).  I haven’t seen any real evidence of change in students.  But what has definitely changed is our willingness (and parents’ willingness) to make excuses for students who don’t do what’s asked of them–usually because they’ve spread themselves too thin in their quest to complete a double major, a minor, work a part-time job, and maintain a full social agenda.

    In my experience students who do the reading, really pay attention in class, takes notes, put a lot of effort into class assignments (and turn them in on time) are the ones who end up with A’s.  And this isn’t because I favor them, but because they actually learn something.  Their writing (which is still the core of journalism) is much more polished, their reporting shows depth, and the topics they choose to write about have real stakes.  Students who do not do what is required of them, or do it inconsistently, will not learn as much, period.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_PUEHZXBA5SXQPBRYZZVLCWBNOE sydmark

    Thanks, Katy, for the timely and highly — excuse me but someone just sent me a text — oh, what were we talking about?

    It seems to me the problem is the students don’t realize or care how unfocused and inattentive their behavior really is, and that it actually has consequences. It’s our job as adults and faculty to help them realize the importance of being focused and attentive, taking notes (another lost skill at least from what I see in my classes) and being capable of not looking at their smart phone every few minutes.

    I start the semester with that message, and also warn the class that those who can’t control themselves and their technology  shouldn’t bother asking me for a future job reference.

    Mark

  • http://twitter.com/aoscruggs aoscruggs

    I take classes at the community college. The instructor monitors usage through software on the networked computers, and often takes control of all the computers when he needs to use them for his presentations. Still, just knowing he can see what we’re doing helped keep distractions down. The worst thing is to be sitting next to someone who is playing while you’re trying to pay attention to the lecture. I’ve often turned to students and asked them to listen to the teacher or mute the video.

  • Anonymous

    Your friend is absolutely right. I ban laptops, cell phones and any other hand-held devices, except for recording my lectures.

    Most of my reporting class teaches students how to write and report. They still get plenty of instruction in social media from me, videos and guest lecturers.

    I’m afraid there’s a mentality that if you don’t stress social media, you’re some kind of dinosaur. But as I stress to my students, I’ve never seen anyone bounced out of journalism because they couldn’t adapt to technology. But I’ve seen plenty of people wash out because they couldn’t write or report worth a darn.  

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_WPIEJAJ3AAJ2ACAB7CIFT4LZ6Q Randi

    I Believe that Banning technology in all classes would be advantageous to learning. I under stoood and accept the reason for and against technology in the classroom—however I do believe that technology should be banned in classroom for undergrades—-1st thru 12th, as it is a distraction to the attending students, the teachers (cell phones blurping, or clicks binging) and ultimately to the learning experience , which does invlove verbal intereactions over tweeking in symbols and abbreviations!