Profs use student smart phones to their advantage

Nine in 10 students say they have texted during class.

In 20 classrooms at the University of Michigan (UM), smart phones and laptops are no longer the bane of professors’ professional lives.

More than 4,000 UM students this fall will use a web-based interactive classroom tool designed by a university professor to make phones and laptops a way for students to offer feedback and ask questions instead of peruse Facebook news feeds and friends’ Twitter accounts.

Read more about smart phones in higher education…

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LectureTools, developed at the Ann Arbor campus’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, lets students instantly relay questions to their professors and instructors during a lecture, cluing in educators as to which topics need more explanation.

“The key is to engage students through their laptops or cell phones, so they don’t drift off onto social networking sites,” said Perry Samson, a professor in the Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic, and Space Sciences at UM and the developer of LectureTools. “We’ve shown we can do that.”

LectureTools became commercially available in August after being created in 2009.

Using LectureTools, a student can jot electronic notes synchronized to a professor’s lecture slides and respond to questions posed by the professor, who can display student answers to the entire class.

Instructors can upload video and other content from online repositories as Quicktime or Flash files and can include the material in a lecture accessible for students through the web-based LectureTools system.

Mika Lavaque-Manty, associate professor of political science at UM, said using LectureTools to interact with students helps professors involve students who might otherwise sit near the back of a cavernous lecture hall and check for tweets and Facebook notifications throughout class.

“It really does make large classes seem small. It increases interaction in old-fashioned ways, too,” Lavaque-Manty said. “More students raise their hands. It’s very cool.”

Research conducted by Samson showed that the web-based student response system increased student participation dramatically in UM lecture halls during the winter 2009 semester.

One in five students asked an in-lecture question on more than five days during the winter semester, and half of students asked at least one question before, during, and after presentations.

Student respondents to the UM LectureTools survey said technology—such as the use of laptops—improves classroom engagement.

“These results suggest that students perceive themselves to have strong multitasking skills and that deliberate engagement of technology may not result in diminished student attentiveness and engagement,” the report said.

Using web-connected smart phones to surf the internet and text friends has been described as an epidemic among some in higher education in recent years.

Nine in 10 students said in a recent Wilkes University study that they have sent and received texts during class, although a much smaller portion of students believe educators should allow unlimited texting in class as long as it doesn’t disturb others.

A quarter of Wilkes students said that “texting creates a distraction to those sitting nearby” in a classroom or lecture hall. Three-quarters of respondents said they have been disturbed by the ringing of another student’s phone.

Research from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project shows that half of teenagers surveyed send 1,500 text messages a month, and one-third of survey respondents send 100 texts every day, or 3,000 per month.

UM professors aren’t the first to convert a classroom distraction into an essential lecture tool.

David McDonald, director of emerging technologies and an associate professor in the Atlanta-based university’s business school, has invited the use of text messaging during class while many educators are instituting strict rules against the practice.

The texting program—similar to handheld student response systems—was  used in about 15 Georgia State business courses last school year.

“Rather than trying to fight [texting], let’s use it,” McDonald said, adding that that text system has a “very strict” filtering feature that censors obscenities. “If they’re going to be doing it anyway, have them pay attention to what their teacher is saying, not what Ashton Kutcher is Twittering.”

Eric Mazur, a physics professor at Harvard University, and two of his colleagues have developed student response software that supports many types of questions, so instructors aren’t limited to multiple-choice queries. For instance, responses to open-ended questions can be analyzed by creating a word cloud, and the system also supports numerical or ranking questions, as well as those involving diagrams.

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