Friday, August 19, 2011

Distractors or enablers?

No mobile phones by touring_fishman, on Flickr
The subject of mobiles in the classroom or lecture hall is still controversial with many institutions banning them and countless examples of irritating use of mobiles in class. There's no doubt that today's smartphones are rather addictive and it's extremely difficult to teach when the entire class is busy on their mobiles. However, although teenagers are extreme users of mobile devices their parents are not far behind. Every day I see drivers with mobile phones in one hand as they overtake me. Look around at your colleagues in meetings and at conferences and you'll see them busy updating Facebook, checking e-mail etc. So it's not just a teenage phenomenon. We're all guilty to some degree.

It's all about respect I think and that is what we should discuss in class and even at work. Knowing when to switch on and when to switch off. When we need to discuss face to face we switch off the mobiles. However we also need to be more sensitive to spending too long on one way communication. If you force a large group of people to listen to a one hour lecture you can be sure that many will find their mobile much more interesting than your speech. Keep the discussion active and engaging and the distractions won't be so attractive.

I've just read a good article on how mobiles can be used effectively in the classroom, Backchannel learning in an organizational setting (Dave Kelly, eLearn Magazine). It deals with the use of mobiles in corporate training but the ideas are equally applicable to schools and universities. Instead of being distractions mobiles should be used to create more student involvement. One quote stands out:

"Simply put, learners are now walking into your session carrying the ultimate engagement tool right in their pocket."

The so-called back channel at conferences and classes can be used to gather student responses to the ideas being discussed and to transmit those ideas to a wider audience and involve even outsiders in the discussion. Mobiles are ubiquitous today and are not going to go away so all attempts at banning them are going to be futile. However we need to spend more time discussing the art of paying attention and showing respect, remembering that it works both ways. Teachers must also try to cut the one way communication and students must try and be able to focus attention when required. We need to think more about why we gather people together in one room and use that time as constructively as possible. If we don't people just switch off.

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License by  touring_fishman 

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