Taking Advantage of "Disruptive Technology" in the classroom

November 01, 2022
Justin W. Marquis Ph.D.

All higher education instructors have been there – you are happily cruising along in class, lecturing, discussing, engaging, whatever your jam, and suddenly the theme from the Exorcist is emanating from someone’s pocket, purse, backpack, or from right on top of their desk. You have become the victim of disruptive technology in the classroom. Your rhythm, mojo, concentration, or even confidence has been dealt a serious blow, and the entire class is placed on momentary hold while this joker either silences their phone, excuses themself so they can answer it, discovers an urgent need to reply via a text message, or just plops in an earpiece and starts prattling away in class. One solution to dealing with this phenomenon is to strictly and sternly ban all portable electronic communication devices from the classroom and to react swiftly and mercilessly the first time someone dares to cross that boundary. While you will never prevent all interruptions, a second, more subtle solution is to embrace this disruptive technology and incorporate it into your teaching. Here’s how.

Guided Connectivity

With a smartphone, iPod, iPad, or other tablet, your students can literally hold the whole world in their hands. This connection to what is going on beyond the walls of the classroom should be encouraged. Through a connected device students can be guided to interact with outside experts, connect with potential clients for course projects, or brainstorm with their peers in a way that will record the results automatically.

One of my favorite teaching activities is to show a movie in a connected classroom where my students and I can share resources and discuss the movie silently in an online chat while we watch. For example, doing this while watching Dead Poet’s Society, I sent the text of each poem discussed in the movie to my students so they could follow along or read further than what was used in the film. This practice is somewhat distracting from the film itself, and it should be because it is engaging students’ minds at multiple levels and enriching the content. You could also take advantage of digital screencasting software to create exercises that integrate with your lesson content and that your students could complete on their portable devices as a way of following along and supporting their learning.

Who Needs to “Know” Anything?

While the common perception among students is that their professors should be the definitive expert about everything that is discussed in the classroom, this is seldom the case. With the rapid pace of change in our society and the sheer volume of information available, it is impossible for any one individual to be well-informed about every topic that might come up during a classroom discussion. Accessing the Internet through a smartphone or other portable device to check facts or confirm the latest rumors can be easily integrated into a discussion in order to make sure that the most timely and accurate information is represented. Reference sites, online maps, webcams of live events, and YouTube videos, to name a few, can provide you with information about topics as academically focused as Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, as trivial as how many children which celebrities have adopted, or as practical as an explanation of how to use spreadsheet software, or almost anything else you might need to know at the spur of the moment.

Accessible E-reading

According to Andrew Clark, CEO and President of Bridgepoint Education, “Digital textbooks alone look to make both K-12 and university education more affordable. Indeed, the FCC’s Digital Textbook Playbook estimated the switch to digital textbooks will be about a $600 savings per student a year” (16 March, 2012) http://www.cnbc.com/id/46760210.

Remixing your classroom to require online materials that can be accessed through a portable device could certainly save your students some money, possibly even reducing their textbook costs to zero, but more importantly will give them a purpose for having the device in class and allowing them to see its potential as a tool for learning rather than just one for keeping in touch with friends.

Allowing students to use portable devices in the classroom also allows for greater accessibility for students with disabilities. Google, PowerPoint and Zoom all provide real-time text captioning for students, accessible right in the palm of their hand. You can also use these tools and a projector to live caption yourself for the entire class. A strategically placed microphone will capture and caption student questions for you or others in need of that service. Thinking about these tools this way makes them more embracing of diverse learners’ needs rather than disruptive.

Encourage Silent Reflection

If students are going to want their smartphones in their hands anyway, that need can be taken advantage of by turning their smart devices into student response devices. According to Jonathan Wylie’s blog Mobile Learning Technologies for 21st Century Classrooms, “Other innovative uses of cell phones in education involve websites like Poll Everywhere which allow a teacher to create a set of questions that the students can respond to with a text message. The results can be displayed instantly as a graph via a projector, or on an interactive whiteboard, and the teacher can gauge the level of student understanding very quickly. A class set of student response systems can be an expensive outlay, but if your students already bring their cell phones to school, why not put them to use in the classroom?” (Wylie) https://www.merlot.org/merlot/viewMaterial.htm?id=871775

This innovative incorporation of technologies that may otherwise be considered disruptive can not only keep students on-task and engaged, but can also provide the instructor with a valuable way of gauging whether their teaching is being effective. It is a win for both sides.

Encourage Cloning

If the daily lesson is focused on something intellectually challenging for students such as understanding the interrelationship of economic systems, mapping the human genome, complex trigonometry, or programming robots, video enabled devices provide one ready solution for helping students grasp difficult concepts. During these challenging lessons, encourage students to take out their portable devices and record the presentation. In this way, the instructor doesn’t have to stop to repeat themselves, the lesson flows more naturally, and those who did not understand the first time can replay the instruction at their convenience to learn the material. These videos can later be shared on a class YouTube channel, Facebook page, or in an LMS like Canvas so that all members of the class can have access. A savvy instructor might even archive these videos for future students and build up a collection of resources that could eventually be used to “flip” the classroom http://thejournal.com/Articles/2012/04/11/The-flipped-classroom.aspx?Page=1.

The Digital Presentation Crutch

One of the most important skills that students can take away from their higher education is the ability to be confident and convincing presenters (Alshare & Hindi, 2004). While there is certainly a value to memorizing the content of a presentation, that isn’t always necessary, or even recommended – you might forget something important. Portable devices provide an excellent way to keep your presentation notes handy and discrete at the same time. Ranging from using the note-taking functions available on most smartphones, to actually controlling a PowerPoint slideshow through the portable device, or even using the new capabilities of a few devices to function as a digital projector, smart devices can be invaluable tools for supporting students in giving classroom presentations.

While it is unwise for students to rely too heavily on their devices, having some support may help them develop confidence in their public speaking so that they can rely on it less when it really matters. Here are PowerPoint Presentation Best Practices from HCC Libraries that will help ensure that students are using the medium responsibly https://libguides.hccfl.edu/powerpoint/tips.

Put Some Distance Between You and Your Students

A slightly more off-the-wall way to take advantage of these portable technologies is to use them to break students out of the classroom. By taking advantage of screencasting technologies and video conferencing tools such as Zoom, you can turn your traditional classroom into a virtual one if you or your students are unable to attend in person for some reason or a lesson requires that you all be in different places (studying physics in an amusement park, for example). While most administrators will probably not be appreciative of such a strategy used on a regular basis, it is something to keep in your back pocket if you need to miss a class and would rather not cancel it.

Asking for Trouble?

These devices will be present in your classroom whether you like it or not. Prohibition works to a certain extent, but always breeds resentment and eventually fails. Policing the presence and use of connected devices in your classroom is a waste of your time as well as that of your students. Finding a way to focus the power of these remarkable devices to serve your educational goals is one way to turn a negative experience into a positive one. Taking advantage of the presence of these devices through the use of any or all of these strategies puts students’ “disruptive technologies” to a positive use and encourages active learning. To update an old saying, “idle smartphones are the Devil’s playground.”

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