When technology disengages students from active learning

Technology is always advancing, and it’s tempting to think that advancing technology always presents opportunities for education. I think that’s reasonable in principle, but in practice? In practice, advancing technology often disengages students from the work of active learning — especially when the technology provides a convenience.

PowerPoint is dull

Consider presentation software, like PowerPoint or Keynote. Presentation software is almost universal in STEM education, replacing the blackboard or whiteboard in the vast majority of non-laboratory classes. As a practical matter, this means that the teacher is presenting slides rather than writing or drawing. This seems great! The teacher can maintain eye contact with students, and present more varied and realistic material. The teacher can be sure that their equations are correct (or at least have been proofread). The teacher can include photos, videos, or animations in the presentation material.

At the same time, the teacher can go faster than if they were writing on blackboard. There is little or no obstacle to including more material. Since the teacher isn’t writing their notes by hand, why should the students? The students ask for slides in advance. By the mid 2000s, students expected slides in advance. Student Evaluations of Teaching reflected those expectations, and began to punish teachers who didn’t provide slides in advance. By the mid 2010s, most students no longer printed slides, but brought their laptops or tablets to class, making electronic notes and highlights on the digital copy of the slides provided by the teacher.

Constructive learning requires friction

All the technology advancements described above reduce friction: they make the transfer of content seamless and immediate. But as every educator learns, active learning requires constructive activity by students, constructive engagement with the material. Constructive engagement can take many forms, including:

  • Problem-based learning
  • Inquiry-based learning
  • Design activities
  • Note-taking

Every form of constructive learning involves a a source of friction with the learning content. Problem-based learning and inquiry-based learning present gaps between the student and the outcome. Design activities require creative solutions, alone or in groups. And even the simple act of note-taking requires the contruction of phrases, sentences, and diagrams to represent content. This is constructive learning activity. Highlighting a passage in a presentation is not.

Any educational technology that reduces friction between student and material risks reducing active learning.

New educational technologies such as virtual reality provide a vivid, memorable experience for students. But the technology itself doesn’t make the active learning happen. Engaging, captivating classroom activities or technologies need to be paired with active student learning activities so that the engaging experience is translated into real learning. Otherwise, technology that reduces friction will reduce the engagement and active learning of students.

Since learning technology seems to be moving inexorably towards less friction, less note-taking, more opportunity for disengagement (to say nothing of multi-tasking), what can educators do? Here are three easily-implemented options for educators:

  1. Use slides with “cloze“. A Cloze Test is an exercise with redacted information. Just leave information out of your slides and require students to fill it in in their notes. I like to leave blank spaces for parts of equations and fill them in by hand.
  2. Switch to an overhead camera. Provide slides, but at certain points in a lecture switch to an overhead camera and start writing on paper. My handwriting is terrible and I’m left handed, so this is risky, but it instantly turns students into active learners taking notes.
  3. Include a student journal as part of assessment. Simply require every student to put their learning in their own words every week.

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