Welcome to the education chat room
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Innovative associate professor Glen Lowry isn’t one of them. He has experimented with versions of a projected backchannel for about a decade in his English lectures and culture-and-community classes at Emily Carr University of Art + Design. He sees distracted students futzing with cells and laptops, so he aims to reinvigorate the “sage on the stage” lecture through technology.
When he was an undergrad at Trent University, he took a mesmerizing class in the literature of the First World War; it was taught by “a little elven man” who sat at a piano and smoked and accompanied his lectures with music from the era. In the same vein, Lowry wants to grab a new generation through technology.
Yet for Gen Y students, in Lowry’s experience, tweeting their class discussion is not as instinctive as Du argues.
“All this stuff about youth being digital natives—it’s not true,” Lowry told the Straight in a phone interview from Emily Carr. “The students like to look at Facebook but, by and large, it’s a passive exercise, just seeing what stupid photos have appeared.
“They are not good communicators. It’s not their fault. That’s what we’re supposed to be teaching them. And the level of communication needed to use Twitter is quite high, which is why it’s so popular among 35- to 50-year-olds.”¦So when a student goes on the backchannel and it’s projected, their stupid comments are going up on the board as well as their insightful [ones].”
Still, there’s a bevy of benefits to an in-class backchannel, he explained. First, shy students who would never speak up in a 200-person lecture hall will participate in a texted discussion. Second, students are texting anyway, so the backchannel redirects their compulsive behaviour back into the material. Third, students who don’t have the skills to listen to an hour-long lecture are engaged by their own texted participation.
“Ultimately, I want students to spend more time in quiet contemplation,” Lowry said. “But I don’t think we can get there by just asking them to turn it [electronic media] off.”
Psychology professor Tim Pychyl strongly disagrees; students, he believes, must learn how to turn this stuff off.
He experienced cell-induced rage earlier this week. In a senior seminar class he teaches at Carleton University, a student had just finished her oral presentation. As he started to offer her verbal feedback, she pulled out her phone and texted a friend—while he was speaking to her.
“I grabbed her phone,” Pychyl admitted in a phone interview from his home outside Ottawa. “What in the world was she thinking? You’d have to be so rude—or so addicted—to do that kind of thing.”
Flashing in his mind, though, was the March 25 arrest of a Valdosta State University assistant professor who allegedly shut a laptop on a student’s fingers and is being charged with battery. “There, but for the grace of God, go I,” he thought.
Pychyl is an expert on procrastination, so you’d think he’d be sour on distraction-causing computers, phones, and social media. In fact, the Psychology Today blogger has won awards for his use of tech in the classroom; he podcasts every lecture, in part because he knows that many students tune out in favour of texting, Facebooking, and cruising YouTube during class, and he wants the forum to be available to them on their terms.
Social media satiate students’ basic need for human social interaction, Pychyl said, so he understands why students are so drawn to them. If instructors use high-tech methods to engage students who would otherwise tune out in favour of Facebook, Twitter, or texting, he applauds them for trying.
He doesn’t, however, believe that a backchannel can sustain students’ attention.
“Students compulsively check their phones,” he said, noting that many are truly addicted. “You’ve got their attention for the 15 seconds for them to put up a question. But you’ve not got their attention beyond that, even to wait for an answer.”¦In a class, you’ve only got 90 minutes together. It’s sacred time, a place to promote human skills.
“I’m not being old-fashioned about this. Students need to pay sustained attention to an argument. They need to learn how to speak out.”
Classroom use of social media can’t solve education’s greatest challenge, Pychyl said: creating self-motivated learners.
“There’s a lot of benefits [to using high tech in class], but the potholes are so huge, and a lot of students are falling through the cracks,” he said. “We don’t pay enough attention to the potholes”¦.We know that the more you use these things [as a distraction], the lower your GPA. So let’s not be Pollyannaish about this.”