Technology and social media are a ubiquitous part of college campuses, making it ever more difficult to compete for student’s attention and focus. Adapting new technologies is one strategy for student engagement but it must be done purposefully to have an impact. In his article for University World News, Bob Samuels makes the point that most online learning environments are synonymous to large lecture classes in that they afford students the opportunity to multitask and become distracted. Perhaps the best way to engage students comes in the form of small classes and the opportunity to disengage them from their devices. He writes:
One potentially positive result of the current fascination with online education is that universities and colleges may be forced to define and defend quality education. This analysis of what we value should help us present to the public the importance of higher education in a high-tech world.
However, the worst thing to do is to equate university education with its worst forms of instruction, which will in turn open the door for distance learning. Perhaps the most destructive aspect of higher education is the use of large lecture classes.
Not only does this type of learning environment tend to focus on students memorizing information for multiple-choice tests, but it also undermines any real distinction between in-person and online education.
As one educational committee at the University of California in Los Angeles argued, we should just move most of our introductory courses online because they are already highly impersonal and ineffective. In opposition to this argument, we need to define and defend high-quality in-person classes.
Although some would argue that we should prepare students for the new high-tech world of self-instruction, we still need to teach students how to focus, concentrate and sustain attention.
In large classes, where the teacher often does not even know if the students are in attendance, it is hard to get students to stay on task, and many times, these potential learners are simply surfing the web or text messaging.
In a small class, it is much harder for students to be invisible and to multitask, and while some may say that it is not the role of university educators to socialize these young adults, it is clear that the current generation of students does need some type of guidance in how they use technology and participate in their own education.
When people multitask, it often takes them twice as long to complete a task, and they do it half as well. For instance, my students tell me that when they try to write a paper they are constantly text messaging and surfing the web: the result is that they spend hours writing their essays, and their writing is often disjointed and lacking in coherence.
Since they are not focused on a single task, they do not notice that the ideas and sentences in their essays do not flow or cohere. Literally and figuratively, these multitasking students are only partially present when they are writing and thinking.