“Well Intended Attempts at Technology in Education”
by Jeffrey D. Shaffer （大学教育センター）
One of my never-ending desires as a university professor is to find better and better ways to reach my students. There’s no arguing that today’s students are tech savvy and well armed with the latest gadgets and toys. They grew up with computers as a natural part of their every-day lives and many of them now carry always-on, always-connected smartphones with them everywhere they go. Internet-based social networks and messaging apps are quickly becoming one of the main ways they communication with each other and sites such as Google and Bing are quickly becoming one of their main sources of information about anything and everything.
So, just how do we reach this younger computer-oriented generation? It’s already becoming obvious that they feel less comfortable around paper-based books than with touch-screens. But what does this mean for the classroom? If the students are more “screen-centric” then does using paper-texts serve them best? Which medium helps them to connect with the contents better – analog or digital?
Questions like these have led me to experiment with new and creative ways of bringing technology into the classroom, in an attempt to connect with my students through the medium they now seem to know best — computers.
Below you will find short snapshots of the various things I have tried – the good, the bad, and the almost. Though I ask the reader to bear in mind that much of what goes on in class still greatly depends on the teacher’s attitude and motivation as well as each individual student’s own thoughts and experiences – what may work with one group of students might not necessary work as well with a different group, even on the same day with the same chapter of the textbook.
It Works — On-screen Attendance
One of the uses of technology that I have found to work well in every class is going over the class roster together, on-screen. When students enter the classroom, they see their name and beside it the number of classes they have missed. And when we go through the roster together, they see me add “points” to their name. This serves several purposes. First, it helps to motivate students to be in class on time. They feel, even slightly, that they are getting something by being in their seat on time, and there’s also the negative motivation that it’s painfully obvious who is absent and how often some students have been absent thus far. Second, by going over the roster, interactively, it helps the students and I to get to know each other better. I call, they respond, we make eye contact, I ask them how they are, and they receive thier “points”. Even for just a brief moment each class I am 100% focused on each student – eye to eye. Third, this also serves a few practical purposes. By having their attendance on-screen, I don’t have an ever increasing queue of students wanting to know how many classes they’ve missed, and when the semester is over, I find that I already have a ready digital record of their attendance.
It Works — Textbook as Presentation
Another thing that seems to work very well is turning my textbooks into presentations. I take the time to turn each lesson into a digital presentation which includes all of the audio files that would normally be played from a class CD. The finished product is something that’s easy to use, easy to see, easy to follow, and easy to understand. It allows the class to maintain a nice smooth flow — no fumbling around with CD-players, remote controls, or finding the “right track”. I have also found that by putting everything on-screen I can also show them the answers to in-class exercises. Students have commented time after time that they like seeing the answers on-screen because it helps them with grammar and spelling. By having everything up front and on-screen all guesswork and all confusion disappears. A further advantage of having everything on-screen is that students no longer get lost, they always know exactly there we are in the text and what we are currently doing in class. And when we do a class activity I leave up hints or a “sample conversation” to help them make their own original in-class conversations. Having another readily available reference helps make students more confident and more successful.
It Works — On-Screen Feedback
Having a computer always connected to the projector and screen in the classroom also proves extremely useful when working in groups on a problem or a question. I simply open a word processor (on-screen) and as each group gives their answer, I type. Once each group has shared their answer, there they are, on screen, available for everyone to see at a glance. Then we typically proceed to compare and contrast the varying answers together. Occasionally (but infrequently) we can make additions or corrections together. The ability to write and edit text before the entire class has proven very powerful. The best case thus far has been in a discussion class where each group was asked to consider the causes of a particular problem. We then put each group’s answers on-screen and as a class re-arranged the various answers into a logical chain of causes-and-effects. The results were wonderful and students were able to quickly catch on to the best ways to rearrange the answers into a logical flow.
It Works — Essays and Feedback via E-mail
One final thing I have been experimenting with more recently having students to submit their assignments to me via e-mail. Thus far, though, I have mostly restricted this type of “technology in the classroom” to the handing in of essays or other large “projects.” I am turning to e-mail for a few reasons. First, it should be easier for students to write and edit their essays on a computer, especially as modern computers now automatically help with spelling and grammar. Second, using a computer encourages students to go back and “edit” their work as they don’t have to re-write the whole thing just to make a few alterations. Third, it allows me, as the teacher, to make more detailed comments on their work and give more personal encouragement in my replies. And fourth, it fosters a closer relationship between each student and myself. Sometimes this even leads to a few friendly e-mail exchanges with the students. However, e-mail is a double-edged sword and can cause more trouble than it’s worth if you are not careful. I do not ask students to e-mail every assignment to me as trying to respond personally to 200-300 e-mails per week for 15 weeks is simply impossible . Thus, I reserving the e-mail route for occasional assignments that like essays where the teacher’s comments can go a lot want to improving the students’ motivation and language use.
It Doesn’t Work — In-Class Internet
While I have discovered a few things do seem to work well, I have also discovered several things that do not work well at all! The biggest of these is trying to use the Internet in-class. While the Internet is a great repository of images, video clips, and facts, it also is filled with a large amount of unsavory junk. There is enough of that junk out there now that it makes in-class use almost impossible, if not dangerous! For example, if the name Shakespeare pops up in class I am suddenly presented with a golden opportunity to discuss the theater or the beauty and rhythm of language. It would be perfect it I could find a short clip of Romeo and Juliet on YouTube. Sounds great until you see all the other awful things that pop up when you search for “Romeo and Juliet.” The situation is so horrendous that even a simple search for a picture of “a couple in love” returns all manner of sexually-themed images mixed in with the results, and that is with safe filters enabled.
It Doesn’t Work — Secondary In-Class Internet
Try to find a solution to the Internet “junk” problem, I thought that it might be easier to find the items I wanted online without the students watching and then put them on the screen when it’s “safe”. But instead carrying around two laptops, I thought perhaps something small yet powerful like an iPod Touch would be more idea. However, after attempting this a few times, I have found that not only it is hard to find images and video on such a small screen as the iPod Touch has, it also takes too many steps to broadcast the iPod screen to the in-class screen… The upshot is that by the time the image or video actually appears in front of everyone, many of them have lost focus and are starting to goof off or chitchat. The flow and rhythm of the class is lost and is almost too hard to recover.
It Doesn’t Work — Allowing Students to Use Their Phones
This one would seem to almost go both ways – it would be great, but it would be a disaster. Most students now have their own smartphone, so it would make sense to allow them to use their phones in class to look up information during group activities or at least allow them to use the in-phone dictionaries. However, more often than not, allowing students to use their phones in class leads to students “peeking” at e-mails, checking Mixi and Facebook, or chatting on Line. And while the potential of everyone having their own pocket-computer in class is very tempting (and potentially very useful!), I have found it better for the time being to ask students put their cell phones away during class — out of sight, out of mind.
I Want It to Work — Smartphones
While somethings seem doomed to fail I cannot help but yearn for the day when they can be utilized in class. For example, smartphones. Yes, I just explained why smartphones do not work in class, and yet I have a sincere hope to find a way to make them work. At the moment, the only way I can foresee them being usable in the classroom would require a dedicated app or a dedicated website for the students to use. This means, unfortunately, that the spontaneity of using the Internet to look up information would be lost and the cellphones would become little more than CALL classroom terminals. They would be stuck with pre-determined contents and pre-determined contents only. Still, I believe that because students are growing more and more accustomed using their smartphones for nearly all of their “information needs”, I heavily suspect that presenting class-related materials through their own phones would help them to receive that information and really digest it, not to mention the bonus feature of being able to view the same contents outside of class!
I Want It to Work — Student/Group Answers via Computer
I also would love to see students be able to submit their individual or group work to me via some instantaneous method such as e-mail or text messaging, in class. That way as we work on an activity together I could provide instant feedback to the groups or individuals via the same system or I could then display the results on the in-class screen for a class-wide discussion. The main difficulty here is in finding the right communication platform, and again with trying to keep students on task.
I Want It to Work — Student/Group Answers On-Screen
One other piece of classroom technology I’d like to see is some way for individual students or groups to be able to submit their own answers directly to the in-class screen. Something like a messaging program, but in such a format where we either discuss the answers as is or we could also jump in an make additions or corrections together. At the moment, though, I do not know of any such platform and it might be better to stick with the previously mentioned “Answers via Computer” to keep the more mischievous students from posting undesirable things to the screen without any filtering by the teacher.
Drawbacks and Problems that Remain
Unfortunately, nothing is perfect when it comes to teaching and technology, and nothing is perfect especially in the world of educational technology. The best successes I’ve stumbled across still have their own varied limitations. For example, turning textbooks into presentations seems to work very well in the classroom, but they take a very long time to create. On average, making a presentation for a 90-minute class takes approximately three hours, each. However, if a teacher has the time and energy to be able to put into making in-class presentations, the benefit are seen later, first in class and later when you teach the same class at a later date. In such cases the teacher needs only to tweak their presentations to keep them fresh and relevant.
Another disadvantage of in-class teacher presentations, as noted above, is their decided lack of flexibility. There is no way for a teacher to suddenly go chasing an interesting “rabbit trail” — a side issue that pops up in class. The nature of a presentation is that it’ll be the same next year and the year after that and the year after that. The only escape from this problem I have yet found is to jump out of a presentation and switch to a word processor (as described above when collecting group answers) and then jump back into the presentation. This is very tricky to do and not lose the class momentum or focus (you must be prepared for the switches and know how to use your computer and software very well). So far, however, it seems to work fairly well.
And thus I continue looking for new ways to connect with my technologically savvy students, and I continue to experiment with new ways to use technology in class. Some things work and some things don’t, but I’m always excited when I find something that does seems to capture the students’ attention, keeps them more engaged, and thus helps their understanding.
Who knows what the future will bring? Before the year is out we will likely see an onslaught of smartwatches and major advances in smartphones as well. We’ll also continue to see an increase in the number of smartphone-carrying students walking about the campus — phones in hand, typing messages to one another through Line.
There must be better and better ways to reach these students, There must be better and better ways to teach them. We just have to try.