Through the Google wormhole – In support of mobile devices in the classroom

10 10 2015

SSPX0049Sit back sometime and observe millennial generation young adults using mobile devices.  They don’t spend more than a few minutes in any particular app.  A message may lead to Google which may lead to YouTube and on to Snapchat.  They follow a thread of interest wherever it leads.  They rarely sit and watch a video for more than a few minutes (or seconds) at a time, and most articles are TL;DR (too long; didn’t read). They may watch a longer video if it teaches them to do something (complete a video game level, learn a guitar technique), but they tend to watch only long enough to gather the specific information they need.

If this happens in the classroom? The knee jerk reaction is to ban the distraction and lock up the cellphones.  Are mobile devices a distraction in the classroom?  Yes.  But, that’s not the question we should be asking.  The real question should be:  Is what is happening in a lecture-based classroom worth 50 minutes (or more) of non-distraction?  Is 50 minutes (or more) of complete attention to a lecture even humanly possible?

I left the face to face classroom in 2012 to move fully online.  From 1991 – 2012 I taught science to students ranging in age from high school freshmen to second year medical students.  The bulk of my classroom hours have been spent with community college pre-nursing science students.  The years I was in the traditional classroom aligned with the movement of cell phones from rare car-based devices to ubiquitous pocket-based devices.  Each year I watched the devices become more common, more capable, and more distracting.  The reaction of the high school was to ban them (a ban that was removed the year after I left the classroom).  I never banned them in my college classrooms, except during tests.  As an online teacher now, I have no way of banning them – nor would I ever want to (not even during tests).  Banning a powerful learning tool of any kind seems counterintuitive to me as an educator.

But, they are a troublesome distraction from learning, right?  Maybe. Maybe not.  If, during a lecture, I mention “brain eating amoeba” Naegleria fowleri infection and that leads a student into the Google wormhole to emerge with an understanding of the anatomical relationship between the olfactory nerve, frontal lobe, and the attraction of the protist to neurotransmitters – but missing the portion of the lecture where I went on to cover malaria – what is the impact to the student?  Did they learn something valuable?  Absolutely.  Will it be on the test?  Probably not. Is the problem then the mobile device, or is it the test?

When I first started teaching college anatomy and physiology, in the early 90’s, I felt tremendous pressure to cover every topic a future nurse might need when she or he entered clinical classes.  I taught at night so I my class sessions were generally 2 1/2 hours long.  I talked fast, and I crammed in information as a monologue presentation for at least 90 minutes of each session.  The next session always started with a quiz over what we had covered the prior session.  The book and my lectures were the content.  Students kept their notebooks for years.  It was the days of pre-consumer-internet.  Although the “content is king – cover it all!” method of teaching and learning made a sort of sense in the early 90’s, twenty-five years later why are we still teaching that way?  Why are we still expecting students to learn that way?

Over the past few years, I’ve realized just how ineffective the cram and recite method of education is.  I’m working to change my online course format – progressive ten years ago with its 20 minute lecture videos and randomized, timed quizzes – into something more educationally relevant for today’s students.

Research, using millions of MOOC video sessions, shows that students stop watching content videos after an average of six minutes – regardless of the length of the video.  Research also shows that the attention span of students in lectures is widely variable and that lectures themselves vary in their ability to convey content effectively.

In my online classes I have never had a student tell me “I learned so much from taking that multiple choice quiz!”  But, at least once a week, one of my students says to another student in a discussion area something along the lines of “When you mentioned xyz, it got me thinking and I did some more research and found…”.  In the balance of breadth vs depth of learning, breadth controlled the late 20th century, but depth is showing its value today.  So, why are we still cramming in content?  What students really need is curation, and the chance to explore further the topics that interest them.  But… don’t pre-nursing students need to know about both malaria and brain eating amoebae?  Sure, but will lecture get them there?  Or, are there more effective options?

So, what do these things have to do with cell phones?  Mobile devices have reached saturation.  In most schools, most driving age and older students have smartphones.  The phones are tools, they are no longer novelty devices.  They aren’t playing Farmville or Candy Crush during lectures (millennials don’t meet the demographic for those games).  They are communicating, and – yes – they are even learning.  They are looking up things they are curious about and they are going deeper into content.

If students are drifting off during lectures, maybe lecture isn’t the way to go.  If students are using phones to look up information for 100 question multiple choice tests, maybe it would be more effective to assess using 10 short answer questions instead.  Even better if the student can pick the questions they wish to answer from a list of options.  Banning mobile devices isn’t the way to go.  Instead, wouldn’t it make more sense to put such a powerful tool to work?

Some of my courses are still designed the “old way”, with lecture videos and heavy reliance on multiple choice assessment. But each term I tweak them to move more away from breadth, and towards depth.  Mobile devices may have been the impetus for the change, but I’ve realized how much of a growth experience it is to move out of the lecture/quiz rut and into a more student interest centered approach.  Education shouldn’t be about how much the teacher knows… it should be about how much the student learns.  Whatever tools help the student learn should be maximized to the extent possible.

Next week:  Apps to help teachers teach and students learn

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