What does the digital world mean for today’s college classrooms?

by Stephanie Chasteen on June 15, 2009

I guess that I’m the last person to see this, but this YouTube video on digital technology and college education from Kansas State University made the rounds a while back.  It’s a very moving presentation of how distanced students feel from their own learning and the role that technology plays in that.

From a teacher’s perspective, there are some things that you can do to keep students on task and engaged in the classroom (and make that lecture more relevant to them).

On that note, I went to a nice presentation by Diane Sieber on “Facing Facebook” recently, talking about the challenges facing college instructors with the digital age.  How do you work with the technology instead of fighting it?

The results of a Pew research study in 2006 showed that, in class

  • 80% of students access Facebook or MySpace
  • 73% text message, IM or email
  • 90% browse the web
  • 45% read news or blogs
  • 25% take notes
  • 18% play online games

One thing that she does is to avoid Powerpoint at all costs.  Powerpoint just sucks the energy out of a room, she says, and students take it as a cue to tune out.  Powerpoint reduces complex ideas to simple slides, or at least students see them as reductive.  It also makes lecture scripted and linear — everything is in order and there is this “forced march” through the materials.  This kills any sense  that there’s a risk to not paying attention.  You might as well check your email and then download the powerpoints later.   She uses Mind Manager Pro to create a concept map of her lecture.

She didn’t encourage banning laptops, since that penalizes students.  Help students use their technology more productively, she says. There are some dirty rotten tricks, like using a “dummy” wireless router to draw wireless traffic from the main campus router to that non-internet connected router. You can also restrict laptops to the front row of class, but I’ve seen students still off-task with that method.

But more productively, she has the class create a social contract using an online wiki.  She uses the wiki throughout class, and the social contract is the first thing they do.  Then the whole class has bought in to the contract and enforces it.  That contract always ends up including something about the use of technology in the classroom.  After all, it’s distracting to other students if the student in front of them is surfing the net.

Just being aware, as an instructor, when people are looking at the screen and not touching the keyboard, can help.  Call students by name to draw their attention.  Walk around the class, beyond the first five rows.  Have “tops down” time when screens have to be down, signalling that this is an important topic, and breaking up the pace of class.  She even ran some performance correlations, showing that those students with laptops open during class had lower grades on the test –this was very surprising to students, and they changed their behavior.

These media can complement class activity, too, by assigning a student to googlejockey during class, or using tools such as ubiquitous presenter.


Assaf June 16, 2009 at 11:05 am

You’re not the last to see it – I am! Well made, but I’m not sure what it was trying to say, if anything at all. What was the relevance of the fact that a laptop costs more than what some people make in a year? On a more personal note, I absolutely abhor powerpoint. It’s barely acceptable in big auditoriums when, say, attending a conference, but it’s inexcusable in a medium to small (<100 students) classroom. It just goes too fast and there’s no correlation between the spatial parts of the slide and their temporal relation (e.g., is that equation down there a result of the equation on its right? Is it the other way around?). Powerpoint is great, though, when you want to show images or short animations.

sciencegeekgirl June 16, 2009 at 4:10 pm

I agree, it was a little unclear of the ultimate *point*, but it was still a powerful little film — a glimpse into how digital tech plays out in the classroom.

I share your abhorance of PPT and wish there was a better tool… I like having some sort of visual map of where we are in a presentation or lecture, so you can drill down into a topic with a visual tag as to where you are. But that’s not what PPT turns into. I loved the Mind Manager tool that I mentioned above, but it’s too expensive for me to get.

Assaf June 16, 2009 at 11:29 pm

The thing is, once you start thinking of more tools and visual maps and whatnot, it becomes such a headache. What’s wrong with the blackboard and a good lecturer?

A teacher should first and foremost develop his/her presentation skills, and should leave the electronic toys (that’s what they are) out of the picture; spoken as both a student and a lecturer.

sciencegeekgirl June 17, 2009 at 4:36 am

What’s wrong with the blackboard and a good lecturer?

I must take issue with that statement! There is plenty of research that shows the limitations of a “good lecture”, since learner’s brains aren’t engaged by passively sitting in the audience and listening. Much more substantial learning takes place when students are interactively engaged. Check out any of my posts under the category “how people learn” to see more of this research and my take on it. Lecture has its place, and it’s not bad per se, but it’s insufficient. If these digital technologies can help learners wrestle with complex topics and make connections in ways that traditional lecture can’t — then that’s a good thing. But they’re tools, like anything else. They can be wielded well, and wielded poorly.

Assaf June 17, 2009 at 9:09 am

But a blackboard does engage the student, who copies the material off it actively. If that wasn’t so blackboards were as bad as powerpoint presentations, and they’re definitely not.

There has to be a balance between the depth at which a certain subject is learned (which is directly related to how active a student is) and the amount of material taught (the rate of teaching is highest when teaching is passive). It’s a depth vs breadth problem. I think a blackboard strikes a good balance between the two.

Do you have a link to one of your earlier posts that offers an alternative to it?

sciencegeekgirl June 17, 2009 at 2:35 pm

But a blackboard does engage the student, who copies the material off it actively.

I must strongly disagree! Acting as a scribe does NOT necessarily engage the student’s brain. I think we often make the mistake of comparing our students to ourselves. As experts in our field, if we go to a professional talk, our minds are very engaged in what we’re hearing, even though we’re sitting passively. We’re comparing what we hear to what we already know, making connections, formulating questions, and so on. It is a “minds-on” activity for us, as experts, to listen to somebody lecture (and perhaps to transcribe some of our thinking into a notebook). Students are not experts. We are guiding them through the material for the first time. There is a famous quote that education is the “passing of material from the lecture notes of the instructor to the notebooks of the students without passing through the minds of either.”

I’m not saying that lecture is necessarily completely ineffective — it can be an efficient way of summarizing material or going further *after* the student has been given a chance to wrestle with it and make sense of it for him or herself. Dozens of studies support this statement.

If that wasn’t so blackboards were as bad as powerpoint presentations, and they’re definitely not.

I believe that the major detriment of powerpoint in a lecture, as outlined in the post, is that it creates a “forced march” through the material, with no room for tangents or discussions. A blackboard is much more flexible — one can respond to those student questions, take the lecture in a different direction, the lecturer is forced to slow down to the pace of their own writing (which gives students more of a chance to absorb the material).

So, I believe that blackboards are better than powerpoint, but interactive engagement is better than either one on its own.

Do you have a link to one of your earlier posts that offers an alternative to it?

There are 45 posts under “How People Learn” — it’s one of the main foci of this blog. But here are a few of the ones that I like best:




http://blog.sciencegeekgirl.com/2008/11/17/why-students-fail-to-transfer-what-they-learn/ (If you like that stuff, search for “Schwartz” and I”ve written about his work a lot).

Thanks for the discussion, Assaf.

Assaf June 17, 2009 at 3:54 pm

Thanks for the links. Interesting stuff! Blog readers don’t usually read earlier posts, much like you don’t read old newspaper columns, so you’ll have to excuse me for asking for them.

Writing down something makes you think about it as you write it down (and gives me the time to do so). That’s at least how it works for me (as a student). Suppose you’re shown a picture with 5 marbles with different colors, and after looking at it for a minute you’re asked what colors were the marbles; contrast that with being told to copy down the picture during that minute with your crayons. I’ll bet that on average copying down the picture improves your performance tremendously. That’s why even a “slowed down” presentation won’t be as good as a blackboard. Maybe copying down something is just “passive thinking”, but it still beats “passive viewing” by a long shot. It also immediately highlights those parts of a derivation or an idea that you’re not sure about and helps you “understand what you don’t understand”.

I’m not saying that your other reasons for favoring a blackboard over a powerpoint presentation aren’t valid – they are, but I think they are secondary. Think about questions asked during class; 80% of the time people ask things that are either redundant (“is that a B or an 8 over there?”) or that you don’t care about because you either already know it, guessed it, understood it, or just don’t care about it. Plus, you always get questions from ‘know-it-alls’ that are more interested in demonstrating their cleverness than actually learning. Still, it’s good to have them there, since they give me time as a student to finish copying everything ;).

As for the studies you’ve shown, they’re fascinating, but the parameter of interest we’re trying to optimize isn’t how much a student can be taught, but how much he can be taught *per unit time*. A student can learn much better if he’s allowed to experiment prior to class, but that takes double the amount of time, doesn’t it? It’s already a full time job being a student (I remember my hectic BSc) – I couldn’t possibly imagine it being more intense!

For example, it would seem to (inexperienced) me that using clickers and starting a discussion about the results takes a lot of time (probably ~ 10 minutes in a large, 80 student classroom) – doing it routinely would mean having less time to teach the remaining material. Can you fit these new approaches into the existing time frames?

Assaf June 17, 2009 at 3:57 pm

By the way, I tend to play devil’s advocate a bit too enthusiastically. Clickers do sound like a pretty neat idea!

sciencegeekgirl June 17, 2009 at 4:07 pm

Devil’s advocates are good to get us to crystallize our critical arguments, in any discipline. I don’t mind thoughtful arguments!

I’m a big advocate of clickers as a low-barrier way to change up the classroom structure — when used well!

Derek Bruff June 17, 2009 at 6:07 pm

Did I hear “clickers”? =) I’ll agree that clickers can be a useful tool for overcoming some of the challenges presented in Michael Wesch’s video.

I’ll also point out that many instructors who teach with clickers find themselves “covering” just as much content (that is, achieving as much breadth), just doing so in a different way, a way that provides depth as well.

Other instructors who use clickers are just find sacrificing a little breadth for a lot of depth. As Assaf points out, there’s an optimization problem here. I think it’s important to assess just how “deep” your students are going when you increase the “breadth” of a course. Often, it’s not very deep at all.

Finally, I’ve got to step up and defend PowerPoint! Well, at least a little. Check out Garr Reynolds’ ideas in his book, Presentation Zen, and his blog of the same name:


If you think of a PowerPoint slideshow as complementing one’s verbal presentation–and not the other way around–then PowerPoint can be a very effective way to enhance one’s presentation.

For instance, when I give a presentation on how people learn, I show this image:


I use it to make the point that just as we don’t really know what’s inside of a laptop without x-raying it, we also don’t really know how our students are making sense of what we’re teaching them unless we try to “uncover” what and how they’re learning (usually through formative assessment).

The striking visual image helps make my point more memorable. At least, I think it does!

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