Learning to Teach Tech-Savvy Students

Shari Dinkins considers the reading and resources she used to rethink her use of technology.

March 20, 2008

In the last decade, I've noticed that traditional college students seem more dependent on technology, less comfortable working with others, less able to weather criticism, and unwilling to persist when their
first attempt met with failure. With lightning-fast technology at their fingertips, they accept the first "hit" of a global search engine as the last word on a subject. When asked to rewrite material or review lessons, this group of multi-taskers seems frustrated and impatient.

In my writing courses, students often turned in what looked like a freewrite as a final draft on crucial composition assignments. Although I had a sense that the "authority of print" often convinced students that a properly formatted paper was well written, I still couldn't fathom the mindset that drove my students to work in this fashion.

Outside of class, my young students' lives seemed to be a whirl of online relationships, virtual "lives," and constant reliance on the same two or three friends through instant messaging, text messaging, e-mail, and phone calls; "keyboard bravery," combined with a lack of modesty produced shocking revelations on social communication sites like MySpace and FaceBook. I felt confused-and yes, old.

In 2006, Judy Twenge's book, Generation Me, helped me start to understand. I started to see my students as self-important rather than self-absorbed. I realized that their overuse of technology and isolationism was a product of their generation -- not an indictment of my teaching methods or my discipline. When I read that this generation suffers from anxiety, depression, and loneliness, I started to develop some empathy.

The "Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology," released in 2007 by Educause, also gave me insight as to how many of my younger students see the world. Nine times as many students carry "smart" cell phones now as they did in 2005. Younger people spend approximately 18 hours a week online. Of the 1.3 million undergraduates polled, nearly all said that a moderate use of technology helped them succeed in college. At the same time, many wrote in comments indicating that face-time with instructors and class time with other students was critical to their success in college. This was heartening news. Books at my college library like Lankshear and Snyder's Teachers and
Techno-Literacy and DiSessa's Changing Minds: Computers, Learning and Literacy helped me start to pin down the abstract idea of incorporating technology into the classroom. In the end, I had to agree with
students of the Educause study; when used appropriately and in moderation, technology can help us teach. And it can help our "wired" students learn.

As an instructor, I have much to learn. Although I use course management software (like Blackboard) to supplement each course that I teach, rely on discipline-specific software (like MyReadingLab or STELLA) to augment lessons in core classes, occasionally use presentation software (like PowerPoint or Corel Presentations) to help students grasp abstract ideas, and make a point of answering my campus e-mail twice a day, this just scratches the surface.

My faculty mentor grades in paperless fashion. She receives student work through a digital drop box on the course management software, notes the date and time it is received, makes "comments" on the word processed document, saves a copy for herself, and returns it by e-mail to the student. By creating a digital body of work for each student, she can see how a student is progressing -- and often grades more aggressively when a student doesn't seem to be taking her original comments to heart.

Other professors use interactive handheld response systems (clickers) like iRespond and Senteo. Still others have students create video games and simulations as part of a class assignment. Wikis, blogs with type and voice, and interactive Web sites are being used to teach, too. Lucky to have a few friends more "wired" than I am, I find that they've developed some strategies to use technology well at the postsecondary level.

First, they attempt to understand their student population. Whether or not they decide to accommodate these characteristics, knowing what shapes their behavior helps them keep from becoming bitter and
inflexible. Good reads include: Generation X Goes to College by Peter Sacks, Quarterlife Crisis by Alexandra Robbins and Abby Wilner, Midlife Crisis at 30 by Lia Macko and Kerry Rubin, The Ambitious Generation by Barbara Schneider and David Stevenson, I'm the Teacher, You're the Student, a narrative by Patrick Allit, and for a more positive view, Emerging Adulthood by Jeffrey Jenson Arnett and Growing up Digital by Don Tapscott.

In order to combat the GenMe "I know this" response in class, they teach modules and incorporate a progressive number of more and more comprehensive feedback loops so that they are guaranteed that the bulk of the students know the material. They often preface lessons with the statement, "I know you know this, but." This allows the students to save face while guaranteeing that the curriculum is covered.
With a focus on the self rather than developing social skills and working with others, many GenMe students may initially resent group work. Building in check points where an instructor sits in with each
group can help motivate students and troubleshoot problem areas before a project is due. Simple self-evaluation and team-member evaluation forms (online or in print) assure students that their efforts will be rewarded. Because many are comfortable with reporting systems (such as those to rate products or give feedback online), they may find a confidential critique of another student's performance easy to produce. Posting a rubric which clearly shows that a student is going to be graded not only on the final project, but also on an instructor's observations during check points, their own self-evaluation, and
others' evaluations often encourages them to do the work.

The GenMe perceived "pride" and underdeveloped social skills may result in lackluster class discussion; an instructor may feel as though they are prodding and leading-with no real critical response. In some of
these cases, technology may help. Many instructors have students post answers to detailed questions on a course management software forum; this can be a springboard to discussion or a more-involved assignment. Having students not only post their own answers, but comment on others' can be a rich source of material -- as long as the instructor has warned that the superficial, "Dude, that sucks" response will garner no points. In other cases when there is no obvious use of technology to encourage communication, a simple use of in-class tools may provide some relief.

A colleague of mine hands out sticky notes. After viewing questions on the board (or screen), students are asked to jot down answers on the notes. These are collected by two or three students who then post these on the whiteboard as students in the classroom shout out ideas as to how they might be categorized. At the end of class, this instructor collects these sticky notes onto sheets of paper, makes a few notes in the margins, scans them in and posts them to the course management software so that students can review and use this information in their next assignment.

I post questions and exercises on course management software ahead of time, pass out four or five dry erase pens in class and call on those students to write out answers on the whiteboard. Reluctantly they
trudge to the board. As they write, I immediately give them positive feedback and as they turn to go, I encourage them to pass the dry erase pen on to a classmate. This results in some good-natured rivalries. At times, I bring a digital camera to the classroom and take a snapshot of their written work. I later post these online, along with some comments, for later review. It's important that I stay as positive as I can with these comments. Of course, I may need to gently guide students to a right answer, but I need them to feel as if their efforts are not discounted. This use of the whiteboard and posted pictures is tied to an outline of a later assignment; this provides continuity and helps students to see a lesson as integral rather than as busy work. In both of these cases, the students' own handwritten comments are used as a tool for later work. This seems to satisfy the needs of a generation that loves the idea of becoming popular (or even famous) through videos and blogs posted online-and shows them that type is not the only valued form of communication.

Because administrators encourage the use of technology, colleges and universities often offer workshops or classes for faculty to hone their technological skills. Of course, many of these managers don't use the
software extensively themselves; therefore, it's smart for professors to investigate what kind of support is available before doing a comprehensive "launch" in all courses. And, of course, don't start this process the year you're being reviewed for tenure; better to work through any difficulties before this crucial year.

If inexperienced, start with one class and then expand as you work the bugs out. Ask trusted mentors how they use technology and take notes as they talk. Later you can find out exactly what forms of technical support exist on your campus for both instructors and students -- and most importantly, when they can be reached.

At my college, Teaching and Learning Center staff were able to create a "dummy" account for me so that I could see my course management software as my students saw it. I tried out discipline-specific
software and did all of the assignments myself before I made them required work for my students. I asked the book distributor for extra student access codes so that those who had not purchased the textbook new with the software card shrink-wrapped inside could still perform the tasks required for my course.

I did a "test run" a month before the semester started. During the course, I built in periodic class sessions in a computer lab so that I could show students how to use both software packages; this also gave me time to help them when they had difficulties logging in or when their access codes didn't work.
Students who claimed to know these tools often found that there was more to learn. True experts used this class time to catch up on work, get ahead on exercises, consult linked resources, do guided research for an upcoming assignment, and check their grades. After having an 80-question final stall on several students in a technical writing course, I realized that no matter how much you've used any software, you should always have a form of back up available. Carrying a printed version of the test would have saved my students from stress when their computers lagged and refused to continue after half their tests were done. If I hadn't wanted to make copies of the printed version, I could have made it into a PDF document and either carried it with me on a thumb drive or linked it to my course management software. I've vowed to remember to consider all options when depending solely on technology.

Most of my mentors say to be selective when posting materials online. For those teaching online or hybrid courses, of course, it's imperative to have all materials available online. For those teaching
face-to-face, posting a syllabus, course outline with due dates, reading assignments, quiz and test dates, resources, and a few practice exercises may be the best bet. Detailed information about each major assignment can be posted a few weeks before the assignment is due. But posting every assignment, worksheet, and exercise that the class has worked on (or will work on) may result in an overwhelmed student population that cannot determine what is required and what is supplemental information.

For many professors, answering e-mail takes up far too much time. GenMe students may e-mail simple questions that can easily be answered by consulting the syllabus, course outline, or assignment sheet (which are often posted online). Frustrated professors may find themselves spelling out the same information again and again in e-mail messages. The minute one hits "submit," a response from the same student may come within a minute-this time asking for even more clarification.

Faculty may dread opening up their e-mail program; worse yet, some refuse to answer student e-mail, preferring phone contact or in-person communication. This may result in poor student evaluations -- even if the professor performs all of his or her other duties in an exceptional manner. Although this seems unfair, it helps to remember that this "wired" generation is so confident with instant communication that they often devalue traditional avenues of imparting information. That's not to say that we can't help them see the value in lectures or in-class discussion -- but knowing that their over-reliance on electronic
communication is a result of their culture rather than a rejection of our teaching methods can help us understand why we need to support this form of communication.

It helps to draw boundaries about what you'll provide by e-mail, but make a commitment to answer each message within a given amount of time. "Establish a regular schedule to answer e-mail just as you do with office hours and stick to it. Daily, twice a day, bi-weekly-whatever your course demands," says John Muller who heads up the multimedia department at Sonoma State University. This not only supports your students; it also convinces administrators and other faculty members that you're a viable, reachable source of information. With student communication, however, I personally don't spell out information that is readily available on our course management software. Instead, I direct students to the site and add that if they have any difficulties finding the information to e-mail me again. I also tell them when I'll be answering my campus e-mail again. Giving them a time frame for future contact reassures them that I am interested in their progress.

One area that seems to frustrate professors, too, is the new "my dog ate my homework" excuses. "My thumb drive won't read," "I can't find where I saved my work," "The computer deleted it," "I couldn't print it
out," and "My printer ran out of ink." Some of my colleagues accommodate these technical difficulties. I worry that excusing tardiness or late work because of problems with computers might discourage students from troubleshooting problems ahead of time. It may also tell other students in the course that pulling the "technology" card will get them a few hours (or few days) to improve an assignment before turning in final work. Students who do the work on time may start to resent assignments that must be computer-generated; after all, a number of their classmates will get extra time that they didn't receive to rework an assignment. It's a tricky situation.

Of course, in decades past, those of us who typed our first papers on IBM Selectric typewriters knew to keep an extra ribbon on hand or face the consequences. In the last few years, I've finally adopted policies that clearly state that I will not excuse tardiness or extend due dates to accommodate technical problems. Students who gamble on a low ink-jet cartridge or choose to work on an assignment a few minutes before class starts, encounter difficulties, and turn in work late face a penalty. These students complain; however, these same students often never turn in a late assignment again. They've learned that it's important to build in time to troubleshoot the same technology that makes their lives so exciting; this, of course, is the kind of maturity that will help them succeed in other courses and in the workplace. That I can support.

In the end, technology is just a tool. Used in moderation, it can support learning. Used indiscriminately, it can hamper learning. And this tool, like others, requires an investment of time for professors. A great deal of education, preparation, and hands-on experience will make the incorporation of technology in the classroom a valuable addition for students. And although sleek hardware and do-everything software may seem pivotal to the learning experience, it's smart to seek a balance. Face-to-face interaction not only prepares our students for college coursework and the office; it also helps them become important players in our society.

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Shari Dinkins is an assistant professor at Illinois Central College.


Shari Dinkins

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