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From Distraction to Learning Tool: Mobile Devices in the Classroom

A journalism professor at the University of Maryland is using tablets to engage his students.

Once banned in the classroom, mobile devices are becoming more accepted as a teaching and learning tool. Yet teaching methods have not caught up with mobile's potential, according to Ron Yaros, assistant professor of new media and mobile journalism at the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism.

"Under the current methods of teaching in higher education, a mobile device can be a distraction rather than a helpful tool," said Yaros. "Nobody seems to be looking at how to teach with smart devices, while keeping students engaged."

His assertion is backed up by a recent University of Central Florida survey on mobile learning practices in higher education: Among students who owned a tablet, 82 percent said they used the device for academic purposes. But to improve mobile learning effectiveness, the study advised, "students and instructors need help adopting more effective learning and teaching practices across content areas."

For the past three years, Yaros has been researching the most effective ways to integrate technology into learning environments, with emphasis on use of the tablet in the classroom. He calls his model "MEEC": Manageable Educational Environment for Collaboration, an alternative to the large, impersonal lecture hall (playing on the even larger MOOC).

The key, according to Yaros, is to use the right technology for the class format. For example, students may find a phone too small for academic use, while the laptop can lead to multitasking. "About the only thing you can do to eliminate laptop distraction is to ban them from the classroom," he said. "The laptop can open multiple windows, which makes it a potential distraction, as few students can resist the temptation to open up windows in the course of a 70-minute lecture."

Only the tablet (typically an iPad) is ideal in the classroom, Yaros insisted, because students can open only one screen at a time. "I believe the single-window device — the phone or tablet — will get you closer to success in the classroom."

Designing Lectures for Tablet Use
It's not enough to simply give students a tablet, pointed out Yaros. He puts a great deal of time and effort into designing his classes around the mobile device: "The key is in planning for the 60- to 90-minute lecture, focusing on how to manage it, sharing the professor's work, showing what peers are doing, opening up relevant websites, conveying expert information and keeping the students engaged from the beginning of the lecture to the end."

Yaros uses no screen or PowerPoint in his classes — instead, he shares content with students on their mobile devices. "Not showing slides on a large screen is an important part of the MEEC model," he explained. "I plan out what elements I'm using, what tools, strategy and polling would be most effective. This is all done ahead of time. There may be 30 different things we'll be doing interactively. There may be a message regarding the quiz coming up at the end of class. A slide may say, 'Look up.' The student then needs to look at the professor and engage in a discussion with the class or a colleague."

Yaros often quizzes students to make sure they pay attention to the mobile content. "Students have to stay engaged in order to pass the quiz," he said.

Early Tests
Before his iPad study, Yaros tested how 54 students in a lab environment recalled content read on a screen. The content was unrelated, related or verbatim to his audio. He found that verbatim audio with their reading — that is, seeing while hearing content — resulted in the best retention. This led to his development of the MEEC iPad environment.

Yaros is now testing his MEEC method in two general education courses — Intro to Mass Communication and Information 3.0 — with 60 students in each class. "We talk about traditional media and compare and contrast them with newer media, social media, blogging, tweeting, etc." Recently, during the first two weeks of each course, Yaros distributed iPads to one class (Information 3.0), then observed and tested their recall of lecture material. "I hoped that the iPad class would score better on the quizzes, but the results from this one experiment showed no increase or decrease in learning with the mobile device." He concluded that "the tablets were not distracting, which would have produced lower scores."

Despite the lukewarm results, Yaros believes that there is a significant increase in learning with mobile devices, and intends to repeat and refine his study. "The first step of this larger goal is to explore how these devices are used at every moment in a lecture," he said. "Ideally, the student will have an iPad mini in one hand and a pencil and paper in the other. I want to test whether most if not all students can be engaged for the entire length of the class. The student is not just passively viewing; he or she is writing and interacting with the lecture content. This is state-of-the-art technology with writing.

"My goal is to find out how people learn and interact through technology," he continued. "How do they think with new technology and multimedia content? Do they read and think differently?"

Yaros is actively looking for collaborators in his research, and would like to share his findings, compare notes and learn from other faculty and administrators. Those interested can write to him directly at ryaros@umd.edu.

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