Teaching without Technology

As digital technology becomes ubiquitous in our lives and increasingly present in teaching and learning, instructors should be critical about the relationship between technology and teaching. While there are good reasons for using certain devices or tools, there are also many good reasons for forgoing technology for pedagogical purposes. Research points to growing concern about the relationship between students’ digital lives and mental health (Twenge, 2017). Considering unmediated face-to-face interaction with students the distinct and highest-impact feature of teaching in traditional campus environments, Bowen (2012) makes a case for not eliminating technology in teaching but moving technology out of the classroom.

What follows is a consideration of the relationship of technology to teaching and learning focused on two predominant technology practices in higher education: instructor use of PowerPoint, and student use of laptops and tablets. Other ways of using technology in the classroom (see ATL Teaching Guide on blended learning) might be viewed along similar guidelines.

Instructor Use of Technology: Questioning the Absolute Power of PowerPoint

Generally, instructors should only use technology that serves specific learning objectives. Technology should not be used simply to entertain students or serve roles that are extrinsic to the purposes of learning. It is too easy, as Baylor professor Alan Jacobs (2012) puts it, “to outsource charisma to machines” as a way to “co-opt students’ desires for the teacher’s purposes.” While it can be tempting to use technology to redirect our students’ desires towards learning, the key question is whether this serves your explicit objectives. If not, consider alternatives.

Presentation tools are some of the most common classroom technologies, yet certain uses can impede student learning. Kernbach and colleagues (2015) attend to three “constraining qualities” of PowerPoint:

  1. PowerPoint presentations can create obstacles to information processing when they employ abbreviations and fragments.
  2. By imposing a certain structure on the material, PowerPoint slides can leave the impression that information that is not in the slides is unimportant.
  3. PowerPoint can put the students in a “passive” posture, reducing their investment in active learning and meaningful engagement with the material.

PowerPoint can also present social difficulties in the classroom. Students can feel ignored or frustrated when the instructor spends more time focusing on the slides than the students. Almost all students detest having a teacher simply read information directly from the slides. Paradoxically, students find PowerPoint both boring yet also expected (Ralph, 2015).

None of these are necessarily reasons to reject the use of PowerPoint absolutely. However, should you decide to use such technologies, use them effectively (see ATL Teaching Guide on Effective PowerPoint), and be aware of these challenges. 

Student Use of Technology: To Ban or Not to Ban

Students are accustomed to bringing personal devices with them in their classes, posing the question for instructors whether or to what extent to allow students to use technology in the classroom. Instructors’ decisions should be guided by considerations of what promotes attention and learning. Three findings in the research suggest thinking twice about allowing students to use laptops in the classroom. 

  1. Devices lead to multitasking. With computers or tablets, the distractibility of multitasking results in poorer focus and attention, negatively affecting the quality of their notes (Fried, 2008; Fisher, 2015; May, 2017). Even when students know they are being monitored, they use the internet for non-learning-related activities (Ravizza, Uitvlugt, & Fenn, 2017).  
  2. Devices distract students’ neighbors. When students are seated close to another student’s laptop, their potential to be distracted by their fellow classmates significantly increases (Sana, Weston, & Cepeda, 2013).
  3. Notetaking on laptops is less effective for student learning compared to handwritten notes. Although students can take more notes on a laptop, the “tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning” (Mueller and Oppenheimer, 2014).

These realities do not mean instructors should necessarily ban technology. Some argue that the classroom can prepare students for workplace environments, where potentially distracting technology abounds. Technology, such as clickers, can be used in the instructor’s quest to curate students’ attention (Bruff, 2019). Others argue that laptops are not to blame for poor notetaking but that students have not been taught how to take notes (McClurken, 2016). Some call attention to the way a unilateral ban on laptops exposes students who require a laptop because of certain disabilities or other reasons (Godden & Womack, 2016; Lang, 2016). Instructors should also consider whether a technology ban conflicts with student access to the textbook in class, since some students will opt for a digital textbook, which is often cheaper than the physical book.

James Lang (2016) proposes approaching the challenges of student technology as a call to more engaging teaching. Like the problem of cheating, instructors can take responsibility for establishing conditions in which undesirable behaviors are less likely to occur. The instructor who is concerned about digital distractions may consider other ways to use the classroom space to cultivate good habits of learning (see ATL Teaching Guides on classroom incivilities,  effective lectures, interactive methods, and discussions).   

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