Technology designed to make our academic experience more efficient and effective has one major flaw: It can’t help us unless instructors purposefully integrate it into the entire learning experience and students take an active role in adapting it to suit their needs -- in and out of the classroom. While most professors have begun at least dabbling in digital tools, their effectiveness can be stalled in some cases by slow adoption or limiting factors like avoiding mobile device integration. So let’s take a look at some of the reasons professors should fully embrace tech in the classroom.
It feels fairly safe to assume that the more students an instructor has, the more difficult it is to teach. But thanks to a study from Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy, we don’t have to assume. Larger class sizes mean more work for instructors, which can translate to a less fruitful experience for students, as instructor time is a finite resource. Another way to look at this, the study found, is that smaller class size correlates to better grades, especially for younger students. Again, this seems fairly intuitive, but it’s always good when research confirms the obvious. Unfortunately in many areas, including California, economic factors have led to increasing the cap for class size, resulting in more students per class in many schools. That dynamic doesn’t somehow magically reduce an individual student’s need for one-on-one time with their instructors, which is confirmed by a study published in the Journal of Applied Public Economics.
When you add it up, it’s a disheartening look at the state of class size in higher education. The simple fact is, student engagement, a cornerstone of a positive experience in education for students at all levels, is one of the casualties of this slide into bigger and bigger classes. Luckily, it's a problem with a solution. While student-teacher ratio is an ongoing dilemma, technology, including personal mobile devices, can offer an answer to the specific problem of declining opportunities for engagement.
So we've established the wild notion that engagement is critical for students to have the best outcomes in their education journey. We've also established that class sizes are growing, leading to fewer opportunities for that meaningful engagement to occur. Now let's talk about solutions. A study from the University of Nebraska at Kearney concluded that course engagement is more likely to occur in small classes, discussion classes, and classes where the instructor is responsive to student questions -- which are all potential casualties of an unfavorable student-teacher ratio.
So the key is to find a way to create spaces where those dynamics can thrive despite the limitations presented by increasing class size. Smaller classes and more one-on-one time with instructors is of course the best solution, but realistically, many schools are going to need some other remedy for this growing dilemma. Learning management systems, a relatively new tech, are already a ubiquitous tool on campuses around the country, but as much efficiency as those add, they really only scratch the surface of what tech can bring to modern classrooms. Specifically when it comes to growing class sizes, technology can reinvigorate many of the important aspects of learning that are harder to come by. In effect, it's possible to virtually shrink the classroom by embracing cutting edge tools, especially backchannels that allow the conversations and ideas fostered by in-person learning to grow and flourish before and after class as well.
What's more, that University of Nebraska at Kearney study we mentioned above found that most students' need for support extends outside of the classroom, which is another dilemma for instructors with a finite amount of time. It turns out that many of the most important aspects of education don't even happen in the classroom, which anyone who's a current or former college student can confirm. One of those important aspects of college life is feeling a true sense of community. A study from the University of Waterloo Centre for Teaching Excellence found that in large, crowded undergraduate classes students can feel anonymous, passive, unmotivated, and isolated. We're comfortable leaping to the conclusion that those feelings don't lend themselves to a great experience. Not surprisingly, that study found that a strong sense of community is the antidote, leading to increased motivation, greater enjoyment of class, improved conflict resolution skills, and more effective learning.
Technology has been a driving force in making the world feel closer and more connected, and your campus is no exception. To foster a healthy sense of community, it's crucial to boost instructor social presence and increase student interactions at the student-to-student, student-to-instructor, and student-to-content levels. Digital tools, accessible from any device, are the clear answer here, as they work at scale to create an environment where a community can grow seamlessly before, during, and after class.
So, we're really harping on this "tech is good" angle for obvious reasons, but we don't mean to imply that professors are against tech. In fact, generally, instructors in higher education are open to new forms of technology that benefit the classroom. In Educase's 2019 survey of more than 40,000 students, the majority agreed that their instructors typically use tech to engage them in the learning process (66%), use technology to enhance learning with additional materials (67%), and encourage the use of online tools to communicate/collaborate with the instructor or students
in or outside class (62%). Excellent! You sense the "but" coming, right? In the same survey, only 40% of students reported that instructors encouraged them to use their own devices during class. As we've said above, tech can do great things, and one of those things is establishing a continuity between inside the classroom and outside the classroom.
It should come as no surprise that students are using their own devices for their education now more than ever, especially as the internet has become a much larger part of the college experience through the widespread adoption of learning management systems and the cost-effectiveness and convenience of online textbooks. Professors who outright ban the use of devices in the classroom are fighting an uphill battle against tools that have been shown to make learning more effective and accessible. It's understandable that instructors want to remove distractions from the classroom, but this type of blanket policy may have a chilling effect on optimal learning. Moreover, data suggests that policies that discourage or ban the use of technology in class may disproportionately affect underrepresented groups (such as students with disabilities, students of color, and first-generation students), as these students attributed significantly greater levels of importance to their mobile devices for their academics.
In their study, Educase concluded that the intentional use of tech can make learning visible and give instructors an opportunity to practice "agile teaching," through which they can capture student thinking and respond to the needs of learners in the moment.
There’s a lot of research to support the hypothesis that tech makes learning more accessible for everyone (see everything we’ve cited above), but one of the more compelling studies was born from the theory that the sheer saturation of smartphone ownership (94%) among 18- to 29-year-olds in the University of California education system makes it an absolute necessity to assess how faculty are using mobile learning to support students. The study is a thorough look at a broad range of disciplines, class sizes, teaching styles, and device types. In more than half of all use cases observed in the study, there was increased engagement and improved efficiency in teaching as well as learning. Interestingly but perhaps not surprisingly, almost an equal number of STEM and Humanities/Social Sciences classes in the study found that mobile learning tools led to improved social connection, as well as improved learning outcomes.
Study after study suggests that technology brings more good than harm to higher education, and while instructors are beginning to embrace some of the tools that make learning more effective, growing class sizes and shrinking engagement require at least a look at tech that can address some of the legit problems that arise. If you’re a student looking to make the most of your education or an instructor looking for solutions to increase classroom engagement, you’re in luck: Game-changing tools are out there, ready to go to work for you.
REFERENCES AND CITATIONS
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Mayo, J., Peacey, M. W., & Richardson, M. (2018, January 23). Class Size at University.
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Miller, R. L. (n.d.). The Role of Instructional Factors in Student Engagement. Retrieved from
Woods, D. (2015, September 23). The Class Size Debate: What the Evidence Means for
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