I remember feeling like a rebellious trailblazer when I first asked my 8th grade students to take out their cell phones for a class activity in the fall of 2009. The 8th graders’ eyes lit up as they reached into their pockets, prized gadgets finally allowed to breath open air after being crammed in with gum, pencils, and crumpled papers. After all, school policy prohibited the devices from being out at all during the school day. I was the cool teacher, seeing beyond the anachronistic policy and bringing 21st-century learning into the classroom.
I’ve always been open to new technologies in the classroom—in fact, in 2010 I argued in an Education Week Commentary piece that we were doing students a disservice by not incorporating cell phones into instruction. But over the past two years, I’ve seen or read about too many teachers and students who have become enamored with—even addicted to—social media and cell phone applications that fail to offer true pedagogical advantage or promote critical thinking. While summarizing is a real skill, do we really want students to further fragment their thoughts and attention in this age of incessant digital distraction and stimuli with 140-character blurbs? Do we want students to spend even more time in front of a screen, bypassing opportunities to converse and collaborate face-to-face?
Back in 2009, I discovered Poll Everywhere—an easy-to-use Web texting service—that allowed students to respond to open-ended or multiple-choice questions by text message. I tried it as an exit card, to reflect briefly on a lesson on sentence structure. I also tried having students publicly summarize what they read during independent reading. They loved seeing their answers pop up almost immediately on the digital projector screen. But some students didn’t have texting on their phones—if they owned one—and a few students thought it’d be hilarious to anonymously post derogatory remarks for the whole class to see. After a month-or-so trial, I decided that old-fashioned note cards and verbal responses were more efficient and ensured more class participation.
Questioning ‘Tech Savviness’
Using Poll Everywhere turned out to be more gimmicky than useful. It increased initial engagement in the activities, but the overall benefit was marginal. After all, I wasn’t promoting any critical thinking skills, but rather just using phones and the Web service to get students’ attention—though in a way that took more time and effort than more traditional strategies. Other Web applications and social media tools such as Prezi, Wordle, and Xtranormal might initially seem to have worthwhile educational use, but theirs is limited as well. I’m tired of hearing how “cool” Prezi is, when really it’s just a better-looking, slightly more interactive version of Powerpoint. I don’t want students to become dependent on technology that requires too many templates, cheapens thinking, or relies on flashy graphics and movement. These gimmicks do not develop genuine technology competence.
A recent report by the Economic & Social Research Council refutes the notion that today’s youth, the “net generation,” is truly tech savvy. After interviewing and collecting data from 2000 first-year college students in Britain, researchers found that only 21.5 percent of students had blogged, and only 12.1 percent of students had used wikis. Too few students are familiar or engaged with these sorts of technologies that are structured to promote academic rigor; instead, they opt to use Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr, most often as distractions from their studies rather than learning tools.
I’ve come to agree wholeheartedly with the study’s findings. Do many students you interact with know how to do much more than Tweet, post to Facebook, or browse YouTube? Email is antiquated to students; after all, many kids are so used to fragmenting their thoughts that writing a substantial email is drudgery. Twitter is all the rage for teenagers and is a constant source and depository of mindless banter and instant gratification. Being tech savvy should include the ability to synthesize ideas and media forms, and create something original. So how can we promote more thoughtful use of technology in schools?
Using Tech to Create
Despite my shifting beliefs about the efficacy of certain technologies in the classroom, I am a long way from giving up on technology altogether—indeed, I currently teach a digital media and storytelling course. There is tremendous power and potential in what we can teach students with sound, image, and video-based projects.
These days, instead of simply embracing Web 2.0 tools, I’ve decided to embark on creating a curriculum that utilizes technology as part of a larger creation process. Like the writing process, which requires planning, prewriting, drafting, editing, and revision, we can utilize audio, still photos, and video—all student-generated—to teach students to be tech savvy in a meaningful way.
In my digital storytelling course, for example, students learn how to collaborate using Google Docs, analyze images and video in the context of literature and narrative, and apply photo rules when they shoot, interview, edit, and sequence all of their raw footage and images. They create photo essays, audio slideshows, and short documentaries from start to finish, then critique each other’s work. I’m lucky to have collaborating professionals join class weekly. I’ve also learned that true tech savviness starts with people. If students can’t communicate face-to-face to conduct interviews or set up photo shoots, there is little point in placing a camera in their hands or a laptop at their desk. As educators, we must find a balance between screen time and “face” time.
If it’s simple—even mindless—to use or create with new technology, then we must question the pedagogical value of what we are doing. That said, I don’t regret using Poll Everywhere and experimenting with class blogs several years back. After all, as educators we must be willing to test out, and sometimes adapt to, evolving opportunities to teach and engage students. I’m still trying to figure out my curriculum, and will continue to test out new programs and technology applications to enhance the course. But until I’m convinced that cell phone and social media applications truly support deep thinking, my students will keep their devices in their pockets and backpacks.