Instant messaging in the classroom

by ninashiel

Twitter and more traditional news outlets such as the BBC have today reported on a paper on the effects of instant messaging through phone use in the classroom on student learning. The whole paper is available here. To very briefly summarise, the study found that those who did not engage in messaging during student learning, as well as those who engaged in messaging that was relevant to the topic (an important aspect that goes easily uncommented in the discussion) performed considerably better than those who swapped messages on topics irrelevant to the topic at hand.

I am of the generation that saw the influx of new technology, portable and otherwise, but my school days in the 1980s and 1990s and my BA days in the turn of the 21st century were still marked by the lack of information and communication on demand. Texting existed during my final years of school, but not many had their own mobile phones even in Finland, the once-promised land of Nokia. (That said, I remember being shocked when I arrived in Ireland in 1997 and discovered that hardly anyone outside my immediate circle of nerd friends had mobiles). In Trinity in the last years of the 1990s and the first years of the 2000s those Arts lecturers who were interested in incorporating technology in teaching and learning in any way had to fight to get students contribute to message boards or have anything to do with computers. And the students most likely still didn’t do it. I did, because I thought it was fun that way.

To an extent, I think that it’s an over-simplification to point an accusatory finger at mobile technology to say that it is to blame for poorer performance. Daydreaming and communication on irrelevant topics has always existed in class. Are you old enough to remember passing paper (!) notes in class? Did you ever get in trouble if your teacher found out and read them in front of the whole class? Maybe one “advantage” of mobile tech is that it contributes to quieter atmosphere in class, as those who would otherwise have whispered conversations end up having them by instant messaging instead. Of course, that presupposes that the conversationalists don’t end up involuntarily giggling or squealing over the message contents.

Here is the thing though: there are always going to be those students who do not care about the class topic, do not think that it’s relevant to their studies/career/etc and will not pay attention. They will think about other things, chat off- or online, doodle, or play games, or read/write social media. Our job as educators is to motivate these people, to draw them out of their ennui as much as we can by challenging and engaging them. To put it bluntly, the students only have so much attention and we need to compete with the entire rest of the(ir) world for it during class. Those who come in interested in the topic or see the relevance of it are primed to give us more of their attention straight away – the rest we need to convince, for want of a better word. Because I believe strongly that learning comes from the student, who uses the teacher and teaching as tools to facilitate her/his/their own learning, I also believe that it is ultimately up to the student whether they choose to stare at their phone or to pay attention in class. By appearing interesting and, crucially, interested, we can push them towards choosing attention to our teaching. Let me tell you from my own experience: I’ve always been the teacher’s pet, but lecturers who monotonously read from their notes made – and make! – me rather read Facebook for the period of supposed learning.

If we take the road of banning mobiles, we may end up distracting the students further. As anyone with experience of any kind of addiction knows, you don’t go cold turkey without giving a moment’s thought to the object of addiction. Take away the phones, and the students end up preoccupied with wondering about what is happening on and in their various social networks, and/or engaging in some other displacement activity, never mind resentment against your petty rules, which may lead to resistance towards the learning process as directed by you.

So, besides remembering that teaching, too, is a performance art of sorts, what could we do about mobile devices in the classroom? Going from my own experience, if the students have things to actively do, they are less likely to be distracted by social media. Small in-class projects, whether it is in pairs, groups or singly (not everyone is suited to working in groups!), could be useful, as long as the students have enough motivation to complete the project (discussion afterwards and/or brief presentations). Encouraging discussion in class usually works in engaging most of the students, as their peers’ voices seem to stimulate them in a manner different from that of their lecturer. Equally, if the students have an opportunity to make their opinion known in class, they may be less likely to do so by message, so that the potential “omg so bored lol cinema l8r??” can instead morph into “So I really don’t like Keats because he’s a whiny git” and at that point it’s the lecturer’s job to coax out why the student thinks Keats is a whiny git, how that shows up in the poetry, and so on. Learning doesn’t have to be an avalanche of positive experiences, but negative experiences can also be turned into learning. I feel that this kind of thing – mutual engagement, mutual interest, the feeling of the student that you are paying attention to them, as much as you as teacher, ideally, feel that the student is paying attention to you – is the ultimate strength of face-to-face teaching, rather than watching videos online, for instance.

We could also actively employ social media and internet in general in our teaching and learning. When I was taking my MA classes, I liked to be able to pull up more information on the phone. For instance, during the classes on WWI literature, I often checked spellings of names, or the context of some concepts that came up, and I felt that my learning experience was enhanced by that, because I had a fuller idea of what was being talked about. Perhaps we could offer keywords, or URLs on “further information” during class as well as afterwards. In the first class of a module, we could present a hashtag for the class. #CompLit101 #WarLit #LitSpace. Similarly, we could create a Facebook, or whatever-social-medium discussion group for the students, on the assumption that since they’re going to talk anyway, they might as well do so under controlled circumstances. (Now, they may create a separate group that doesn’t involve you, but you can’t help that.) If we’re teaching visual culture of any sort, we could do things with Tumblr, Instagram and Pinterest, hell, I’m sure I can think of a way do relevant things with SnapChat. We could ask the students to conduct polls on relevant topics on their social media and then discuss the results.

As noted above, the study referenced here found that relevant messaging had a positive impact, and no negative impact, on the learning process. Using social media and instant messaging as part of the teaching and learning methods would, ideally, teach the students responsible use of social media as well as the primary topic at hand – a bit like learning to drink alcohol at home at dinner so that you’re less likely to do so in secret somewhere outdoors, with brown paper bags.