Please Take Out Your Cell Phones

Back in 2012, I wrote a few posts for the CIRTL Network on teaching with technology. Some of the technologies mentioned have changed since then, but the teaching and learning ideas are still sound, so I’m re-posting them here on the blog this week. Let me know if you find the posts useful!

Questions from the AudienceWhen I talk with most instructors about cell phones or laptops in the classroom, I hear great concern about digital distractions. If you let students use mobile devices such as smart phones, tablets, or laptops, they’ll surely start checking Facebook, watching ESPN, or shopping for shoes. (I don’t know what’s up, but when this issue gets addressed in the media, shoe shopping is ALWAYS mentioned.)

However, I have a theory about digitial distractions, a theory that’s supported by anecdotes from the mobile learning pioneers at Abilene Christian University and by data from CU-Boulder grad student Bethany Wilcox. My theory is that if all students are expected to do with their mobile devices during class is take notes, then they’ll distract themselves with Facebook et al. because notetaking doesn’t keep their minds busy enough.

Don’t get me wrong. Good notetaking is hard work. Listening to a presentation, making sense of the ideas, and recording those ideas in writing in ways that allow one to revisit them later take a lot of brain power. However, I suspect that most of our students don’t practice good notetaking. They approach notetaking as transcription, with the goal of copying down as many words that their instructors say or write as they can. This kind of notetaking doesn’t take 100% of a student’s mental energy. As a result, they have some spare cycles available for digital distractions.

If my theory is true, then we can minimize digital distractions by giving our students more to think about and do during class. And since those little smart phones our students carry around with them have more computing power than the computers that put humans on the moon, perhaps we can think of some ways to use those powerful devices to engage our students in learning?

How might we do that? Here are a few examples of times I’ve asked students to take out their phones and laptops during class for active, on-topic learning.

  • Digital Ink on the Cheap – The term “digital ink” usually refers to the ability to draw using a digital device, typically with a stylus. If I could pass out stylus-equipped iPads to all my students, that would be great. Since I can’t, I have students participate in “digital ink” activities on the cheap. Last semester in my stats course, I showed my students a rather complicated data set and asked them to brainstorm ways to visualize the data using pen and paper. I’m pretty sure I surprised a few of my students when I asked them to take out their cell phones and snap photos of their sketches and send those photos to my email account. This allowed me to pull up a few of the sketches on the bigscreen for classwide discussion.
  • Shared Spreadsheets – On a couple of occasions, I’ve sent my students a link to a Google Doc spreadsheet and asked them to contribute to it during class. In my cryptography class the other year, I learned how to pipe the contents of a properly formatted Google Doc spreadsheet into an interactive, online timeline. During class one day, I had my students work in groups to identify important events in the history of cryptography. Each group had a reporter whose job it was to enter the group’s suggestions in a shared spreadsheet. Worked like a charm. More recently, in that statistics course, I wanted students to have more understanding and ownership of the rubric that I would use to evaluate their infographic projects. I asked students to work in pairs to identify components of effective infographics… and to share those ideas with the class through a Google Doc spreadsheet. This little instance of crowdsourcing worked well, too.
  • Collaborative Debate Maps – Crowdsourcing is a nice framework for thinking about the use of mobile devices in the classroom. During that cryptography course, I wanted my students to explore the security-versus-privacy debate associated with modern information security. (In a nutshell: If the government can read all our emails, they’ll have an easier time catching bad guys. But if the government can read all our emails, then we won’t have any privacy.) Again I asked students to work in groups, this time to identify arguments for or against various points of view in this debate. Each group had a reporter who noted the arguments his or her group generated on a shared Prezi. Prezi is a great tool for concept mapping or, in this case, debate mapping. The reporter typed in an argument, then drew arrows from that argument to other arguments or positions on the map that it supported. The result was a messy, but rather comprehensive depiction of this complicated debate.
  • BYOD Clickers – I’m a big fan of teaching with clickers. (I did happen to write the book on this topic.) When I teach a course, I ask my students to purchase clickers because I know I’ll use them regularly throughout the course. Sometimes, however, I want to poll an audience when clickers aren’t available. However, I can pretty much count on any given audience member to have a cell phone handy, which allows me to use any one of a variety of BYOD (bring your own device) classroom response systems. For instance, at the 2011 POD Network conference, the POD Network president wanted to poll the 600 people in the room during her keynote. I was able to use Poll Everywhere to collect free-text responses from the audience, then pipe those responses into Wordle to generate a word cloud. This made quite a splash at the conference, and would be just as easy to implement in most classrooms. (Bonus: Poll Everywhere is free for up to 40 responses per question!)

I hope you’ve found these ideas for using mobile devices in the classroom at least a little inspiring. If you’ve leveraged your students phones and laptops in the classroom, please share your experiences in the comments. Thanks!

Image: “Questions from the Audience,” Derek Bruff, Flickr (CC)

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