Twitter, iPads Enhance Classroom Learning
Issue   |   Wed, 09/21/2011 - 03:02
Photo by Brianda Reyes '14

The College is gearing for some high-tech innovations, as professors across departments are beginning to experiment with including technology in the classroom to enhance students’ learning experiences. Professor Javier Corrales from the Political Science department recently surprised his class, Cuba: The Politics of Extremism, by introducing the use of Twitter during classroom discussions.

“The goal of the experiment is to see if we can diversify the level of participation in classes,” explained Corrales. “We want to see whether the opportunity to use Twitter generates participation from students who wouldn’t have otherwise participated.”

The pedagogical ideology behind this idea is that shyer students who aren’t willing to take the floor during a normal discussion have a new channel of real-time communication.

Students would be able to tweet their comments about an ongoing lecture as it happens using a specific hashtag created for the class. Then, the professor would look for the hashtag and together the class would read the comments.

“Twitter eliminates the problem of having to wait in a queue in order to seek the floor,” said Corrales. “You can actively participate even before your turn comes.”

Not all discussions would be open to tweets, however, he added.

“It would lose its specialness if used too frequently,” he said. “I would chose to use it during specific discussions, such as when I am proving to the class one argument over several others they have heard during the course of the semester. In such a situation, I would want them all to think about the strengths and weaknesses of the argument I am articulating and share them with me.”

The idea arose during a discussion between Scott Payne of the Information Technology Department and Professor Corrales regarding problems of communications in classroom discussions and the role of technology, particularly chat rooms, to provide additional ways for students to communicate in class.

“Scott Payne told me I could use Twitter, and I was captivated by the idea,” said Corrales. “It is simple to use, you can use it with a phone, and it allows you to participate without writing too much or feeling like you have to write an essay.”

“I proposed Twitter to [Corrales] to provide a way for students to record their thoughts during class in a way that wouldn’t require them to interrupt what’s going on already,” said Payne. “Research has shown that shyer students won’t try and take the floor in a classroom discussion. Through electronic tools, we can eliminate ‘the floor’ and everyone can contribute as much as they want.” The idea is not just to gather or record the thoughts of the classroom, he explained, but also to empower students to become more assertive during classroom discussions.

The fears of distractions from using technology and social media in the classroom remain a valid concern. “The temptation to move into a different world is large,” said Corrales, “I cannot really see what people are looking at on their screens in the room I am lecturing in, so I can never be sure what people are seeing on their screens. I have to rely on the judgement of students to tell me after the lecture if they were too tempted to go into another world or not.”

Secrets and Lies, a first year seminar, is a similarly innovative course for its use of in-class technology. First-years enrolled in the course use iPads for note-taking and reading. Taught by Professor Austin Sarat, the course is an experiment that aims to shed light on how students read and take notes for class.

Professor Nicola Courtright started the iPad initiative, which is based on promoting active reading. Academic Technology Services is overseeing the experiment, and they were the ones to fund the iPads. Payne, the department’s director, explained that the experiment will look at students’ active reading strategies.

“We’re also looking at iPads as a better form factor for dealing with electronic texts and in the classroom,” Payne said.
On a regular course, most students would take the PDF, download it and read it on hard-copy. The notes that they take on the papers are not helpful for their analysis, so having them take notes on the iPad will allow them to analyze how students annotate.

To do so, the students are using an iPad app known as GoodReader. According to Sarat, the app “allows them to imitate what they would do on a text but electronically.” The students can highlight and write notes.

Although laptops are common in some classrooms, Sarat said that they create a wall between the professor and the student.
“The iPad more effectively emulates the education experience,” Sarat said.

Although Sarat does not see a downside of using the technology in the classroom, some students think that the iPads serve as a distraction in class. When asked what weaknesses she believed iPad use had, Katherine Britt ’15, a student in the class, said, “One word: Facebook.”

Payne also seems aware of the potential for distraction, but he’s expressed hope that this distraction will fade away as everyone becomes more accustomed to technology and the digital era.

“That’s a part of all of us becoming digital[ly] mature, and the challenge is that we’re all digital adolescents,” Payne said. “As we all become more digitally mature, we’ll be better able to regulate our behavior.”

Despite the possible distractions, Sarat hopes that the students are getting the effect of critical reading with digital material. With only about 15 students enrolled in the course, it is easy to prevent distraction and focus on covering the curriculum of the course.

Not only did Michael La Hogue ’15, another student in the class given an iPad, praise the convenience of the device, but he also took care to recognize the innovation.

“You don’t have to worry about bringing the reading to class because they’re all saved there,” said La Hogue. “You can just pick an article and search through the notes for a specific phrase to find it. It’s light and it saves the environment. In the future, we’re going to something like that anyway so why not start now?”

Britt also acknowledged the efficiency of using an iPad as well. “Now, I am able to quickly access readings from E-reserves and also annotate them with a few swipes of my finger,” said Britt. “I think my reading process is actually more efficient with this technology.”

The students are also able to utilize their iPads for other classes. For example, La Hogue uses his iPad to look up German words in a dictionary app, while Britt uses an app that helps her with chemistry.

Nonetheless, Britt maintained that the device’s effective usage is limited to certain types of classes. She believes that writing on paper helps her retain information; by taking more time to write things down, they are able to “fully process what [they] are doing.”

“I don’t think all classes should make a switch to technology like this,” says Britt. “Quantitative studies would be weakened with introduced dependence on an iPad.”

Although there are some potential downsides to the use of iPads in classrooms, the experiment is only two weeks old, and both Payne and Sarat think it’s too soon to tell what this experiment is going to show.

“This is the way of the future,” Sarat said. “It’s easy to use, accessibly and very education-friendly. In two weeks or so, we’ll see if they’re doing what I hope they’re doing.”

—Brianda Reyes ’14 contributed reporting