Technology in the Classroom- Use of Laptops, Notebooks & Smartphones

The issue of whether students should be allowed to use their laptops, smartphones, notebook computers, etc. while class is going on has been a hot topic for many professors for a long time now. This is a topic for which there is no one perfect solution, as use of these devices can make total sense for some courses but not for others. While more and more professors seem to be finding ways to integrate the use of these devices into their classes in a way that is acceptable to both them and to the students themselves, it still remains a challenge.

David Gooblar recently published an article in his Pedagogy Unbound blog in which he cites a method used by two professors at the University of British Columbia. At the start of the semester, they have the students themselves collaborate on a usage policy that everyone in the class will be expected to follow throughout the term. This approach has the advantage of making the students be part of the solution to the problem, thus increasing the probability of their buying into whatever policies are decided upon. (The solution that seems to be least-successful is the one in which the professor dictates the terms of usage to the students. That seems to light the fire of student ingenuity as they then try to find ways around whatever you’ve dictated.)

In a lecture class of roughly 70 students, I prefer a more hybrid solution. I would address this issue on the first day of class. A colleague of mine who is a psychology professor had polled her students about what they found to be the top five most annoying classroom behaviors exhibited by fellow students during class. Number one on their list was “side conversations”, closely followed by “laptop and cell phone use”. For each point on the list, I asked my students to articulate why they thought that item was on the list. What made that behavior particularly annoying?

They determined that, in the case of laptops and cell phones, it was the distraction factor, I then gave them a few minutes to discuss amongst themselves possible solutions. They spoke up and in the end agreed to try to minimize disruptive use of technology.

I went on to tell them that they would have plenty of opportunities to use both laptops and smartphones during class time, as there were times that I would expect them to conduct in-class research or to participate in online polls, take notes, etc. But I also told them that there would be times when it would not only be inappropriate but unnecessary to be on their devices and that, at those times, I would require that they be put to sleep or turned off.

I am convinced that this kind of open conversation on the first day was the reason why  the use of technological devices never became a problem in that class, despite its size. It also helped that I asked them to use their devices at minimum in every second class, even if only for a few minutes. This seemed to diffuse some of the pent up need to power up a screen and allowed them to focus better for the remainder of the class.

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You’ve Made a Mistake- Now What??!!

Every person who has ever taught a class has made an error of some sort. Sometimes you know you’ve made one immediately, while sometimes the mistake becomes evident only after a period of time.

I was recently contacted by an adjunct professor who had been provided by her university with a syllabus, lesson plans, assignment instructions, grading rubrics, etc. for a very technical class. One of the assignments had a set of relatively complex instructions. Five weeks into the project, she discovered to her horror that she had interpreted the instructions for the assignment in a certain way, and while half of the class had followed her lead, the other half of the class had interpreted them completely differently. Because of this, this second group was generating work that was different than that of their classmates. How should a professor handle something like this and still be fair to all?

While there were a number of solutions to this specific problem, the key to resolving any problem that arises from a teacher error is to admit to the class that you made a mistake. Give them a brief outline of what happened- they don’t need to know all the details, just enough to give them a picture of what led to the confusion/misunderstanding/error. This shows them that you are on top of it now, and that you understand the necessity of working towards a fair solution. Then present them with that solution, which is just what this professor did.

In this case, the best solution had to strike a balance between what was done by both groups prior to discovery of the error, what the assignment originally intended (learning outcomes), how well the work already done by both groups would achieve the learning outcomes of the assignment, and importantly how the professor wanted to grade the assignment from this point forward.

Cover Letters: Salutations

Yesterday I was asked by a graduate student about whom to address a cover letter to when a job listing has no specific person given as the recipient. Here is some practical advice that can help answer that question.

First, if no one’s name is listed, you can always call the secretary of the department to find out who the chair of the search committee is. However, it can be the case that the membership of the search committee has not been solidified at the time the job posting goes out, so you may not be able to get a name even if you try.

If a person’s name is listed: If you know that the person is a PhD, then use “Dear Dr. XXXXXXX,”. If you don’t know or if you are in doubt about it, use “Dear Professor XXXXXXX,”. A comma after the name is appropriate.

If a person’s name is not listed: Use “To the Search Committee:” or “To the Committee:”. A colon after the word “committee” is appropriate in this case.

Keeping Records of Student Work

Most jobs for studio art or design teaching positions require that you submit not only a visual portfolio of your own work, but also a portfolio of work by students you have taught. This gives search committees an idea of the effectiveness of your teaching.

Because of this, you should make it a habit to record all the work your students submit to each project review. Two options would be to bring a camera to all reviews and shoot the work then, or to collect the work and then shoot it under more controlled lighting conditions.

Remember that the better the quality of the reproduction, the greater the impact the image will have on the viewer. To that end, make sure that you are using a lower ISO, that the white balance setting is matched to your light source, that the artwork fills the frame, and that the artwork is square in the frame.

A bad image of a great artwork will not do it or you justice!

Once taken, organize the image files in your computer by assignment. This will make them easier to find when you need to. Also make sure to embed the student’s name and the medium into the image for future reference.

Things to Do Before Classes Start

Because so much time can be spent of preparing syllabi and lesson plans, a lot of practical things that are critical to a successful teaching and learning experience can often get overlooked. Here are a few items to take care of well before classes start:

• Get keys to the room(s) you will teach in, if necessary. ( I didn’t even think of this before my first day of teaching. Imagine my embarrassment when I couldn’t get into the room!)

• Order materials and supplies. Find out from the secretary or from other faculty in your area how this is done, and how it is paid for.

• Find out if there is lab/materials fee in your department. If so, how does it work? What do students pay for separate from any fee? What is paid for or supplied by the institution?

• Check out, clean and organize classroom or studio as needed.

• Upload course information on Blackboard or other similar site, if used by your institution. Be sure to make it available to students!

• Find out what the Add/Drop policies and procedures are at your institution, and any important deadlines related to that. Related to that are finding out what the maximum enrollment levels are for the class(es) you are teaching.

• Find out what policies your institution has for field trips. Some require students to complete a Field Trip Release form prior to going on an off-campus field trip.

• Find out how to access enrollment information for your class(es). The secretary should be able to provide you with this information.

• Find out how grading is recorded and submitted along with any deadlines at the the of the quarter/semester. Also look into the policy for awarding “Incomplete” grades.