Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Learning activities with laptops

In The Great Laptop Debates, I have been firmly in the pro-laptop camp. I don’t think it’s a good idea to ban them from classrooms. Many students need them to take notes, with or without official disability accommodation. It’s a waste of my time to police whether students use electronic devices, pass notes among each other, or roll their eyes. If I was a student, I would leave any class that would force me to shut down my laptop if I wanted to use it: Good bye and go bless your heart! 

Be my guest, you might say, but what about those studies that show (correction, I’d say: claim) that students learn less in the presence of electronic devices? 

Now, I could go on a rant about why I don’t buy those claims and why the evidence is weak, lacks validity, etc. This might be fun – in fact, it is fun: see The Tattooed Professor’s epic but not always accurate rant. But it wouldn’t show you how laptops can actually increase learning. It’s not enough that laptops don’t hurt students if used properly: we have to use them in a way that actually improves learning. 

This is the time for full disclosure: I have not studied laptop use in classrooms in any systematic manner. I have not tried a wide variety of learning activities with laptops, haven’t collected data, haven’t published analyses of those data in SoTL journals. But I can do two things: point to literature and make some suggestions. 

Avanti dilettanti! 

Publications: I am sure that I’ve found only a small portion of all there is, but a good starting point (at least chronologically) is a 2005 issue of New Directions in Teaching and Learning edited by Barbara Weaver and Linda Nilson. The different articles report on intentional laptop use in a variety of classes at Clemson University. Weaver and Nilson’s introduction (pdf) summarizes a number of activities that are explained in more detail in the individual articles of the volume: using laptops to gather immediate responses from students, to conduct in-class online research and source evaluation, to deliver multimedia material such as videos, to engage students in simulations, or to take laptops on field trips for mobile classwork. 

Another set of suggested activities comes from DePaul University’s Digital Writing, Rhetoric & Discourse working group. I particularly like that it reports on instructor-generated learning goals in addition to the activities, which focus mainly on writing classes. For a couple of strategies that are more applicable to STEM disciplines, it may be useful to look at Bill Moss’s list of Laptop Learning Activities (pdf). (Moss, a professor at Clemson University, links to additional resources at his website.) While many of the activities that Moss lists are STEM-specific, others are useful for any classroom, from quick lecture questions, minute papers, to peer editing. These do not require instructors to restructure of how a class is taught but can be integrated into a lecture format as well as more active classrooms. Enhancing the lecture classroom is something that is done more systematically by LectureTools, a suit of online engagement tools developed by Perry Samson of the University of Michigan and now marketed by Cengage. Here is a paper in which Samson evaluates his use of LectureTools (pdf).

If you do not want to draw students away from their social network activities but use those social networks for teaching,  check out Ida Jones’s use of Twitter in the classroom: Twearning, or Jesse Stommel’s work on Teaching with Twitter.

In addition to seeing what others have done, I find it useful to take a step back and think about what principles should guide an instructor’s adoption of any of these learning activities or the creation of new ones. Weaver and Nilson, in the New Directions introduction mentioned above, point out that laptop-based class activities should provide clear learning value and use the advantages that laptops have over other tools. I think that this is spot-on. When we adopt, adapt, or create learning activities with electronics, we should ask ourselves: What do we want students to learn with this? And how do electronic devices help them do something that they couldn’t do without the device, or couldn’t do as easily without the device?

Considering these two criteria, writing and providing feedback is an obvious area in which learning outcomes and tool function clearly meet: Students can summarize, analyze, critique on the spot in written form, exchange their writings with other students, write feedback and responses, and so on. Of course, all of this can be done without laptops or other electronic devices as well, but being able to share and keep a copy, email to others and receive emails, makes this process more easy. Similarly, electronic devices make research activities easier and more flexible: Instead of sending students on out-of-classroom trips to the library or the data lab, they can research questions right in the classroom and obtain instructor feedback at the same time.

Two further ways in which technology and learning goals meet are tagging and short messaging. Particularly in my introductory survey classes, there are plenty of students who are bewildered by the amount of information and seemingly disparate facts or concepts that they have to understand. Working with databases that organize information through tags may help those students. For example, students could be tasked to identify key concepts from a short lecture, enter them in a database such as OneNote or Evernote, and develop a tagging system that helps them find commonalities among the concepts as well as connections to overarching ideas. Such an activity would help students learn how to use note taking databases and how to organize and connect ideas, identify the main points in a large amount of information.

Twitter can be used to help students prioritize ideas and unearth central points. If students, say, live-tweet a lecture, they have to really figure out what should go into 140 characters at a time, what points are central, and what is extraneous. In addition to the task of prioritizing and summarizing, there is an added communication component: How do I summarize a central point so that it is understandable? That it is engaging? How do I make sure readers get the context to my comments?

There is more that can be done. Instead of rants for and against electronic devices in the classroom, fun as they may be, we should focus instead on how we can employ such devices in the service of learning.

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