October 7, 2009

Mobile Technology in the Classroom

by Sherry Kelishadi - Doctor of Pharmacy Candidate (2011), University of Maryland School of Pharmacy
As a 3rd year pharmacy student at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy, an article entitled Mobile Computing Initiatives Within Pharmacy Education by Cain and colleagues caught my attention for various reasons [Am J Pharm Educ. 2008; 72: Article 76]. Mobile computing technology has impact me personally during my journey through pharmacy school. During my first semester at Maryland, I was transitioning from handwriting my notes to typing them. I was concerned because I wasn’t sure if laptops would have a positive or negative impact on my learning in the classroom. I was attracted to those students who were typing rapidly on their laptops, seemingly able to jot down every word that came out of the professor’s mouth. Over the years, I have adapted to my laptop. I can research answers to drug information questions, access learning materials on Blackboard, and download notes and references. My personal belief is that all pharmacy students should use mobile computing devices in class because they give greater access to resources. However, they should only be used for educational purposes. In other words, browsing the internet and not paying attention during a lecture/case study/ or group discussion is unacceptable and can lead to poor performance.

The article by Cain discusses the impact that laptops and personal computers have had on pharmacy student’s education. More and more pharmacy schools are using laptops – and many require them. There are several advantages and disadvantages to using these technologies. The advantages include students being able to have online access to Micromedex/Epocrates/Facts and Comparisons during lectures in institutions where internet is accessible. Also, students have immediate access to lecture materials and cases. The disadvantages: professors becoming frustrated by students distracted playing puzzles, shopping, instant messaging, posting on facebook, engaging in online fantasy sports games, and web browsing. Personally, I have witnessed first hand the advantages and disadvantages of mobile technology. Daily I see students browsing the internet during a lecture or case study. And I suspect this leads to poor test scores. Indeed, in one study that I found, students who multitasked with laptops during lectures performed significantly lower on simple measures of lecture content recall than those who did not multitask [Hembrooke H, Gay G. The laptop and the lecture: The effects of multitasking in learning environments. J Comput Higher Educ. 2003;15:46–64].

These manuscripts tie into Educational Theory and Practice in many ways. As this course discusses effective ways to teach, it’s important to engage students with the material and not be distracted. Is it more effective to use computers in the classroom or should students just take notes the old fashioned way? I personally believe it doesn’t matter what technology is used (computer vs. pen & paper). The crucial part is the teacher-student relationship. For example, a recent professor of mine was lecturing on HIV and during 2 hours looked up at students only twice. Thirty minutes into the lecture, EVERYONE was doing something other than note taking. Professors should engage their students by periodically asking questions throughout the lecture and making eye contact. This will help students to stay focused on the material regardless of how they are “writing things down.” In addition, professors should have “mini quizes” periodically at the conclusion of lectures to determine what students learned and this will create an incentive for them to pay attention.

Whether a pharmacy school requires its students to use laptops or not, it need not have a negative impact on learning. I believe the crucial part of learning isn’t what technology the students use, but rather how the professors engage students with the material. Students can become distracted with or without a laptop. I have sat through many boring lectures in pharmacy school but also lectures that kept us on our toes. As we have been learning in this course, there are two sides: effective learning and effective teaching. It’s important for both the professor and student to understand their roles and responsibilities … and to use technology effectively to maximize the learning and teaching process.

[Editor's Commentary: I think there is little doubt that mobile technologies can be both a positive and destructive force in the classroom. We've all suffered through "boring lectures." In the past (before mobile technologies infiltrated every aspect of our lives), we'd simply zone out or doodle or have a side bar conversation to pass the time. Now, rather than doodle away, we can engage people inside and/or outside the classroom in virtual dialog, we can shop, we can pull up our notes for tomorrow's big exam, or we can play highly engaging games without leaving our seat. Its all there - at our finger tips. And because we (and our students) have become accustomed to engaging with our mobile devices during even the briefest moments of "down time" (even when driving a car), it's hard to keep us continuously focused for long periods of time. Of course, we never could stay focused for long periods of time ... but now we have something readily available that allows us to be more "productive" ... and distracted. Obviously, these distractions (mobile technology-induced or otherwise) aren't conducive to learning. Unfortunately, mobile technologies - particularly laptops, can be distracting to other students in the environment too - just like those students who sat in the row behind you and constantly whispered to one another did in the past! Just seeing another student in front of you searching for the best deals on a cruise to Hawaii or playing fantasy football can catch your eye ... and suck you in! So what is a teacher to do? The strategies are the same as they have always been. Engage students by (re)gaining their attention, fostering a dialog, and allowing the students to use the power of technology in meaningful ways to achieve a learning objective. In other words, teachers need to harness the technology for OUR purposes ... otherwise students will find better ways to use the technology for THEIR purposes ... like fill in the void caused by boredom. S.H.]

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