From real-time polling and quizzes, to live lectures viewed online from thousands of miles away, it's no doubt that technology has changed the modern classroom. But has it been for the better?
We posed this question to Tim Tangherlini, professor at the University of California, whose more than 20 years of experience teaching college students has given him a unique understanding of how technology has transformed his classroom and campus. In this article, we dive into what are some of the key disadvantages with tech in education and explore a few unique ways to tackle them.
1. Increased Multi-Tasking
"Technology in the classroom has the opportunity to support learning in a series of different ways, everything from classroom arrangement to computing in the classroom," Tim agrees. But a concern that he and faculty at UCLA frequently heard from students was less about the technology being used, and more about how those around them were using it.
At the end of every year, the school conducts a senior survey asking graduating students what they liked and didn't like about their college experience. "What they liked about it was diverse," Tim explains, "but what they didn't like converged around distractions in the classroom." The survey found that students were most bothered by their peers who were using technology for activities that weren't related to school work.
Students surveyed at UCLA were most bothered by their peers who were using technology for activities that weren't related to school work.
"It's not unusual for someone to burst out laughing in the middle of a class when there's nothing funny happening," Tim says. Distractions like these are part of the reason why the UCLA professor discourages students from taking notes on electronic devices or laptops. He, like more and more educators and brain-science experts, advocates that hand-written notes can not only prevent unwanted interruptions and distractions, but also help students remain engaged in the class and retain more information.
"Learning is difficult," he says. "It requires a lot of attention."
2. Lower Attendance
When students opt for online classes instead of being physically present in class, they're missing a key point of education. "Students miss the non-planned, non-structured elements. They don't establish a community of learning, which is why you go to university in the first place," Tim argues.
Students miss the non-planned, non-structured elements. They don't establish a community of learning, which is why you go to university in the first place.
While the UCLA professor agrees that online components have their benefits to learning — like greater access to material, video-conferencing, or flipping the classroom — he emphasizes that keeping things digital is less conducive to a strong community of learning, which he believes extends well beyond the basic components of a lesson. "If you go to the cafeteria, for example, which used to be loud with people talking, people are silent now because everybody's looking at screens," he says.
Lower attendance and fewer people talking on campus due to digital distractions can make for a significantly less enjoyable university experience for students. And at UCLA, where graduating students were most bothered by distractions at school, that seems to be the reality. "It's detrimental to their education," he says. "That's why a lot of students are complaining."
3. Short-Term Learning Goals
Education is a long-term investment, but Professor Tangherlini has noticed that more and more students are entering college less willing to stick it out. "Students want a return on their investment that's short-term oriented," he points out. "There's a less robust willingness to invest in long-term returns."
Tim explains that students who look at school work as a task that needs to get completed, as opposed to a longer process of development and learning, are bound to have shorter attention spans and get easily distracted. "There are certain tasks that require a long attention span," he says, "and it may be more than just the hour and a half of a lecture. It may be more than just two or three hours of reading; it may actually require a longer attention span of weeks, months, or even a decade."
Students who look at school work as a task that needs to get completed, as opposed to a longer process of development and learning, are bound to have shorter attention spans and get easily distracted.
But Tim doesn't blame students for having these short-term learning goals. He says the way education has been delivered, in addition to the way media is now consumed, are more to blame. "I don't think we've done a very good job recognizing the need for much more long-term engagement," he explains. "Students have been trained for short-term engagement, and they're also being trained more and more with the media that are now available, like in 2 or 3 minute sound bites."
4. Aversion To Boredom
Sage-on-a-stage is a term Tim and many educators use to describe a professor who delivers a non-interactive lecture at the front of the class with minimal back-and-forth and lower facilitative activities. A frequently criticized way of teaching in the modern classroom, a sage-on-a-stage has become the typical scapegoat for disengaged or bored students.
But Professor Tangherlini explains that boredom is often part of education. "There are certain things we're asking students to do that require deep and hard thought, and are not in and of themselves exciting in the short term," he says. Boredom, in other words, may not necessarily be a problem caused by lecture delivery, but rather a symptom of short-term learning goals.
There are certain things we're asking students to do that require deep and hard thought, and are not in and of themselves exciting in the short term.
He describes the university as a place where students should come to face and overcome boredom together — to ask questions and dive deeper. "With the intellectual process at a university," he says, "you find a community of other people who are struggling with the same problem, and you can talk to them."
Encouraging students to communicate with one another as a community of learning is important to Tim, especially considering lower attendance, short-term attention problems, and increased distractions at school. And one strategy he believes helps achieve this is flexible learning spaces. "We can change the physical parameters to align with the specific learning goals of that day," he says, describing classrooms where chairs and desks are not fixed to the floor and can instead be moved into pods to support break out groups and hands on activities.
Ultimately, what matters to Tim is that real learning occurs. "Technology needs to be in support of the learning," he says, "instead of the learning chasing the technology."
What we recommend
- Discourage multi-tasking by encouraging paper note-taking.
- Improve attendance by limiting online-only material and including in-class activities.
- Facilitate conversation and engagement through teaching in flexible learning spaces.
- Build and support a community of learning by encouraging students to engage with one another out of class.
Professor Tim Tangherlini teaches folklore at UCLA, where he holds appointments in Scandinavian, and in Asian Languages and Cultures. His recent book, Danish Folktales, Legends, and Other Stories (2013) includes a deeply immersive digital component to it. His work has been supported by grants from the NSF, the NEH, the NIH, the ACLS, the Guggenheim foundation, and Google.