Teaching: Ending distractions

As I work through the idea of flipping my American government course, I need to confront the role of ICT in the classroom setting.
Three weeks ago I sat in on a colleagues course to complete the obligatory “observation” required for those coming up for tenure. It was a basic American government course, with perhaps 50-60 students, and my colleague, who relies on the Socratic method rather than lecture, was doing a terrific job of highlighting certain points regarding the subject of the day: bureaucracy. I was perched in the far corner seat in the back of a room with a tiered seating arrangement. While not relying on lectures, my colleague often referred to projected powerpoint slides with quotes and key terms. At one point viewing a particularly long quote required that he dim the room lights, and at that point I realized I was the only one in the room who had a laptop or tablet open. There literally was no other glow indicating the use of phones, iPads or computers. And, lo and behold, students were actually paying attention to the slide and my colleague.

One more note about my colleague: he is quite ICT savvy, and in fact teaches our courses related to eGovernment and the use of computer technology in public management. And yet he obviously barred any such technology from his undergraduate classroom -- and I might add to great positive effect, for it was clear that the students I could see from my perch were fully engaged.

I contrast this with my own experience, for my policy has always been pretty liberal when it came to allowing students use laptops or tablets in the classroom -- and I actually encouraged it for several years, although more recently I have operated with no stated policy at all. My rationale has been that since I was standing up there pontificating most of the time, it was useful for students to be able to use their laptops to take notes or to use their search engines to look up some concept or term that was unclear. Add to this my inclination to treat all students as adults who can make their own decisions whether and how to make use of ICT tools; I would neither encourage nor discourage. Perhaps a good working assumption when dealing with upper-division or grad students, but foolish indeed in the large class section. (To make matters worse, when in mid anecdote I would stumble on some name or other fact about a news item or historical example, I’d turn to one of the laptoppers and ask them to look up the item on Google or in Wikipedia. Clearly a self-defeating approach to effective teaching….)

Whether or not I flip the American government course this spring semester, the policy will change and be as explicitly stated and enforced as possible: no ICT during class sessions unless they are part of the class session agenda. So while I will likely continue to make use of ICT-based content central to course assignments and preparation, my objective is to have minimal distractions during class sessions by prohibiting the use of any online technology other than the iClicker discussed in an earlier post.
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