January 13, 2012

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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