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Making Mobile Devices a Learning Tool

Students want to use their mobile devices in class. A lot of faculty object. Is there a middle ground where engaging learning can actually take place?

Making Mobile Devices a Learning Tool

This is the sixth and final installment in CT's series on collaborative learning. Previous articles can be found via the links below:

Students' fears on the first day of class used to be about coursework and attendance policy. But today's students enter their first lecture anxiously awaiting the professor's electronic device policy. It's not uncommon to hear hundreds of laptops clapping shut shortly after syllabi are distributed. It's the sound of an epidemic.
--New York University student Ben Zweig on NYU Local, September 2012

There's a civil war simmering in classrooms nationwide. Arrayed on one side are students who would sooner cut off an arm than sacrifice their mobile devices. On the other stand faculty members who expect to be the focal point of their classes and won't abide distractions. So much for collaboration. Over the past six months, CT has run a series of articles exploring exciting new technologies and strategies for fostering collaborative learning in class--often utilizing mobile devices. Perhaps we needed to negotiate a peace treaty first.

This story appeared in the April 2013 digital edition of Campus Technology.

Caught in the crossfire are instructional technology professionals. Charged with promoting technology use in class, they often end up keeping an uneasy peace between skeptical faculty members and technology-laden students. Peace is elusive, however.

Take the University of Notre Dame (IN), for example. There are areas of campus where departments have banned mobile devices; in other departments, faculty members segregate their classrooms to create laptop-free zones. Over at Vanderbilt University (TN), some departments have shut off the wireless network in sections of their buildings to curtail student access during class, says Rhett McDaniel, an educational technologist in the university's Center for Teaching.

No one is suggesting that students are blameless in all of this. They certainly don't receive a free pass from the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT) at the University of Michigan (UM), which has done extensive research on laptop use in class. "The research found that undirected laptop use could be a distraction, and not just for the individuals using the laptops but for the people sitting around them, too," says Matt Kaplan, managing director of CRLT.

It's a conclusion echoed by faculty and graduate student researchers in the physics department at the University of Colorado Boulder (CU), who found a significant negative correlation between cell phone use for off-task activities during class and final grades.

The Upside of Mobile Devices
So what's to be done? Schools could follow the lead of our divided Congress and do nothing--or they could search for a solution that makes mobile devices a valuable learning tool while minimizing their distracting tendencies.

That's the goal of Jonathan Rossing, an assistant professor of communication studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. Rossing, who wrote a 2012 paper on mobile technology in the publication Liberal Education, believes that faculty members should guide students in reflecting on the implications of mobile technology, rather than banning its use. In that spirit of inquiry, he participates in a work group of eight faculty members who share their experiences and talk about how they are using mobile devices in the classroom.

For his own teaching, Rossing allows cell phones in class. "Students go to bed holding cell phones--they check them all day," he explains. "There is an anxiety of detachment that may be even more distracting when they can't look at it."

The quest for answers is playing out at schools everywhere. "We are trying to figure out the place of mobile devices all across campus," says Christopher Clark, assistant director of Notre Dame's Kaneb Center for Teaching and Learning. "Faculty have to realize the world is changing and people are using mobile devices in new settings. I dislike banning technology from the classroom altogether. Laptops are not banned in the real world, so I think we are in some sense doing a disservice to students by not teaching them their proper use."

Indeed, the same research showing mobile devices as a disruptive force also reveals that they can be valuable learning tools--when used properly. Michigan's CRLT, for instance, found that students with professors who integrated laptops into their teaching reported higher levels of attentiveness, engagement, and learning than students in a control group who could bring laptops to class but for whom laptop use was not integrated into the teaching.

Integration With Classwork
This concept of integration appears to be vital to the success or failure of mobile devices in class. If students are using their devices as part of their classwork, it seems, they are less likely to be watching YouTube videos. "I try to use their devices for other avenues of research," says Rossing of his efforts to incorporate mobile devices into his instruction. "For instance, I have students look something up for two minutes and then share with the class."

It's a strategy espoused by Derek Bruff, director of the Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt, who suggests that professors give students more to do and think about during class. "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," he recalled in a blog post. "I'm pretty sure I surprised a few of my students when I asked them to take out their cell phones, snap photos of their sketches, and send them to my e-mail account. This allowed me to pull up a few of the sketches on the big screen for classwide discussion."

According to the CRLT's Kaplan, an increasing number of UM instructors are engaging students by having them use their laptops for collaborative writing, editing, and peer review in Google Docs. As a result, back-channel communication between students and instructors has also increased in both large and small classes. "We are going to continue to evaluate these tools on campus because they are proliferating," notes Kaplan. "We have to get good data on whether they are useful or not."

It is this issue of data, though, that remains a major stumbling block for pushing faculty over the mobile hump. Despite the work of the CRLT and others, the body of research on the impact of mobile devices in instruction is still thin. As a result--or as an excuse--many faculty members are reluctant to incorporate them in class.

"They ask us if there is evidence that mobile devices can lead to improved outcomes," says Edwige Simon, a language technology specialist at CU's Anderson Language Technology Center. "There isn't much research on that question yet."

As for predicting which faculty might be willing to experiment with mobile technology in class, it would be a mistake to ignore older professors. "It is more about comfort with technology, as well as career trajectory," explains McDaniel. "Faculty members who are seasoned may feel more comfortable taking a chance on a new technology technique than young professors."

Education and Guidance
While it would take seriously rose-tinted glasses to believe that faculty everywhere will suddenly see the value of mobile devices in class, some basic steps can alleviate at least some of the student-faculty tension in this area.

It all begins with education and clear guidelines. For starters, says Clark, students should be taught about appropriate behavior regarding laptop and smartphone use. In his view, faculty members have an obligation to tell students if something is annoying them or other classmates.

But more formal guidelines for mobile use may be the most effective way to keep the peace in class, although they're unlikely to end student unrest. It's an approach adopted by some faculty at UM who are feeling pressure from students to allow laptop and tablet use. "What we are seeing is more syllabus inserts that address how mobile technology will be used in class--with a clear pedagogical rationale," says Kaplan.

Douglas Duncan, a professor in the Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences at CU, also believes in laying a solid foundation for how mobile devices should be used in class. "We are working on best practices on how you frame this discussion up front about getting students on board with active learning," he notes. He favors an approach where instructors set clear policies for on-task clicker use and off-task cell phone use, and regularly explain appropriate device behavior to students.

Unfortunately, too many faculty members seem content to stick their heads in the sand. They may announce a policy once at the beginning of class, but never address the issue again or enforce it. "Our survey data suggests students are okay with faculty setting policies, but if it is not mentioned they think it is okay to regularly use their mobile devices," says Bethany Wilcox, a CU graduate student focusing on physics education.

As technology plays a bigger role in university life, Wilcox believes universities may no longer leave it to individual professors to set policy about mobile devices in class. "It may be time to have the discussion about whether there should be a blanket policy," she notes. "We may have hit the point where the university has to address that question."

Electronic-Device Policies
Click on the links below for examples of policies governing the use of mobile devices in class:

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