Making technology work in the classroom

Tufts professor Dan Drezner has grown wary of using technology in the classroom. I get it. Like Dan, I’ve also come to see laptops as a big distraction to students and their neighbors. And I hate the “Facebook face”. You know, the one where the student has this awkward smile that is about 30 seconds behind anything remotely funny that I might have said. Or worse, the silent chuckle sparked by a stupid GIF or text sent by a friend that happens to coincide with me talking about some depressing statistic about the state of the world.
I’ve considered banning laptops like Dan has, but this seems like a decree that I would have hated as a student. So I’ve resisted this nuclear option in favor of restructuring my classes to get students to look up from their screens. I won’t claim victory, but I’ve been encouraged by the results. Here’s what I’ve tried in my Global Health Research course.

First, I decided to turn many of my lectures into videos that students watch before coming to class. Some students like it. Some don’t. I tried different combinations of lecture delivery last semester across two different sections of the course and found that student performance on quizzes was about the same, maybe slightly better when watching video lectures compared to live lectures. So I don’t buy the argument that students would do better if I just lectured in every class.

More importantly, I’ve found several advantages to flipping. The biggest has been the space created in class for activities. Every class is an opportunity to dive deeper into the material that the students consumed on their own or to introduce more specialized topics. For instance, students might watch a video lecture outside of class about the basics of probability sampling and then work through an activity in class based on a recent Demographic and Health Survey from Kenya or Liberia. It’s tough to create activities that are the right blend of difficulty and length, but I’m slowly learning what does and does not work.

I think the lecture-based model Dan seems to be describing might be well served by a device ban. I’ve been persuaded, however, that a potentially more effective way to get students engaged in the material is to design the course around activities. And in doing so, I’ve discovered that technology is key.

For most activities in my course, students are huddled around a few laptops. They’re usually collaborating on a shared Google Doc or running something on Duke’s RStudio container. Access to technology is essential for much of this work. Technology does not always need to mean laptops, however. At the start of every new module, students in my class pull out their iClickers, these clunky devices straight out of the 1990s that only do one thing: submit student responses to quiz questions and polls. Sure, you can use smartphones and SMS to do the same thing, but why tempt students to get off task?

Banning technology might work for some teaching styles, but I’m hanging in there for now.