By: Alejandro Hernández

Every single time I attend an undergraduate course as a TA, particularly those massive first year courses with 300+ enrolments, I see students watching movies, browsing their Facebook wall, listening to music, and ‘whatsapping’ while in class. Although not all students engage in these practices, it is undeniable that young people who have grown up surrounded by new technology see it as a ‘natural’ added extension of their daily interactions. This poses a challenge for older generations – senior and younger professors alike – and creates a technological divide that may constitute a hindrance for the students’ educational processes. Although other, more technologically savvy professors are using new technologies to motivate students, the mere fact of using this technology to get students’ attention may not necessarily be enough. If students are heavily involved with new technologies, which constitutes a potential reason for their lack of attention, the question then arises: how do we improve students’ attention in class and their overall learning through the use of the new technologies that they are already using? By briefly locating the experiences of professors and students in relation to always-evolving technological developments and by analyzing how the mere use of ‘new’ technologies is not enough to generate students’ engagement, this article will argue that the use of technology in class needs to be performed not only by the teacher but by students as well, and that technology ‘add-ons’ need to be part of a lesson plan design that also includes blackout technology periods to better integrate students’ and teachers’ expectations.

Due to the constant advancement of technology, members of new generations have developed certain abilities to receive various stimuli at the same time and process them in better ways than members of previous generations. This argument does not imply, however, that younger generations have an unlimited processing of stimuli without comprising the quality of what they do (Weimer, 2012). Rather, it refers to the fact that behaviour is shaped by the material and virtual elements in which we find ourselves and the types of interaction that, correspondingly, these elements demand from us. For example, the use of a retroprojector demanded from the brain different ways of engagement and, therefore, the brain adapted – through the reallocation and shaping of neurons via synapsis – to a particular way of receiving and processing data. Consequently, the ‘naturalization’ of new technologies by young students follows a different process and poses a challenge for people who grew up with different technologies, particularly professors. For example, some senior professors still need assistance to use a browser, whereas even younger professors still leave the “YouTube is now Full Screen. Press ESC at any time to leave” message on the screen for the full length of the video, something that annoys so-much newer generations. The mismatch between the professors’ abilities in using and engaging with new technology and students’ abilities who are technologically savvy still remains problematic.

A strategy that some professors have used to control this mismatch is to prohibit the use of technology in class. However, as Weimer (2014) contends, the simple technique of policing and enforcing regulations that prohibit the use of technologies such as cellphones, tablets, laptops, and even now intelligent watches is complicated: “If the class is large, it is all but impossible. And that kind of vigilant enforcement is not without costs. If the teacher must be constantly monitoring who’s doing what in the classroom, that distracts the teacher just as effectively as the technology distracts the students.” Thus, the use of a prohibition/policing strategy by senior and younger professors may hinder the overall educational process and deter students from paying attention. In contrast to this position, I contend that the possibilities granted by new technologies can further enhance students’ educational processes and be useful to get their attention while speaking in their ‘own language.’ If attention is “the idea that students have a finite amount of cognitive resources available at any given moment to devote to a particular stimuli from their sensory environment” (Hakala, 2015), the use of technology in class should therefore be used strategically. For instance, there are teachers who currently use Facebook and even YouTube in their courses as platforms for content creation and to “reinforce classroom discussions and engage college students due to the images and audio used” (Harris, 2011). Nonetheless, the mere fact of using visual technology to get students’ attention (i.e., YouTube) is not enough, particularly if the video is tedious and not well done or if this represents only five minutes of a three-hour class.

If students have grown up surrounded by new and changing technologies, it follows that (usually) young students would know more about those technologies than professors. Thus, trying to engage savvy technology users in class with the broadcast of a video or some chats using Facebook will probably get their attention for a short span of time only. A possible solution is, then, to design class activities during which it is imperative for students to use technology by themselves – rather than by the professor only (or mainly) – as well as having technology ‘blackout’ periods to better integrate students’ and teachers’ expectations. In a class about poverty, for instance, I required students to bring their laptops. After we explored what ‘poverty’ meant for them and wrote down their meanings using a conceptual matrix on the board, I shared with students a Google Maps coordinate. The coordinate pointed to a very luxurious condo tower in Rio de Janeiro, located next to one of the poorest areas in the city. I asked them to turn on their laptops and open up the coordinate. Using the ‘zoom in’ tool, I requested from them to ‘walk’ through the streets of the poor and rich areas and to compare and contrast them. Having them use their laptops deterred them from engaging with other technologies, such as cellphones, and – at the same time – offered them the opportunity to use ‘their’ technologies, by themselves, in an innovative experience that allowed them to be immersed in the topic. After the ‘trip’ to Rio, they shared what they saw and the comparisons they made, elaborating together conclusions about the distribution of poverty in a particular geographical space.

This activity (including the in-class use of technology) lasted for around 50 minutes, and the following activity demanded more of an analysis session of written material, for which silence and the lack of technology were necessary. Thus, a planned technology blackout period can also be productive, particularly when the topics to be addressed demand from students their finite amount of cognitive resources either to receive and process new information or to further develop specific content by themselves or along with their peers. This blackout period also helps to avoid scenarios such as the ones found by Kuznekoff and Titsworth (Weimer, 2014b), where “…students who use their mobile phones during class lectures tend to write down less information, recall less information, and perform worse on a multiple-choice test than those students who abstain from using their mobile phones during class.” Nonetheless, if “Students and their devices have become virtually inseparable,” managing a blackout period can become a challenging activity for the professor. A good strategy to avoid this scenario is the negotiation of academic contracts between students and the professor at the beginning of the course, which helps to co-establish the class rules and distributes the responsibility of the educational process among all actors. Moreover, if this initial contract is paired with a wise use of shared technology rather than this being done by the professor only, students will be more involved in their education process, which would help in turn to divert their attention from other technological devices. Overall, the proactive use of technologies by professors and the use of blackout periods, which help to equilibrate students’ dependency on technology, can further improve and enhance not only students but also teachers’ learning experiences. This mixed strategy can also generate emotions such as interest an excitement among students, and even led to a number of new pedagogical ways while using the numerous and newest tools that technology offers.

Bibliography

Hakala, C. (2015). Why can’t students just pay attention? Retrieved January 3, 2016, from http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/effective-teaching-strategies/why-cant-students-just-pay-attention/

Harris, M. (2011). Using YouTube to enhance student engagement. Retrieved January 3, 2016, from http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-with-technology-articles/using-youtube-to-enhance-student-engagement/

Weimer, M. (2012). Students think they can multitask. Here’s proof they can’t. Retrieved January 3, 2016, from http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-professor-blog/multitasking-confronting-students-with-the-facts/

Weimer, M. (2014). The age of distraction: Getting students to put away their phones and focus on learning. Retrieved January 3, 2016, from http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-professor-blog/the-age-of-distraction-getting-students-to-put-away-their-phones-and-focus-on-learning/

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