Technology in the Classroom: A Double-Edged Sword?

studyAs I sat down at the end of the summer to write this blog post, I was in the midst of revising syllabi and planning out my fall semester.  For me, this tends to be a very reflective time.  What worked last year?  Or more importantly, what didn’t work and needs to be revised?  Which activities did the students like?  Which ones did I like?  What new case studies, problem sets, or online models should I add?

Over the last few years, I have been incorporating more computer simulations, online demonstrations, and website resources into my physiology courses.  I often send emails to students reminding them to bring a laptop or tablet to class because we will be using an online Nernst-Goldman simulator, creating cell-signaling animations in Power Point, etc. I receive positive feedback from my students about these interactive exercises, and I am always on the lookout for new ones.

And it appears that I am not the only one. Each new issue of Advances in Physiology Education features an article on a new technology aid – interactive iPad apps for acid-base physiology, increasing physiology interest through Facebook, or the effectiveness of online quizzes.  These technological advances allow us to provide additional self-assessment tools to our students and give them instantaneous feedback.  Models and simulations help engage visual and experiential learners.  Perhaps most importantly, these tech tools attempt to clarify hard to explain or challenging physiological concepts through interactive interfaces and dynamic models.

However, I worry that technology in the classroom may be a double-edged sword.  At the same time that I have been embracing and encouraging these technology tools in class, I have noticed some disturbing trends about improper technology use during class. No teacher is immune from the angst of a ringing or vibrating cell phone during a lecture.  Under the desk texting has become ubiquitous. Several years ago, I team-taught a course with a colleague.  I sat at the back of the classroom during her lectures and vice versa.  Over half the students in the course “took notes” on their laptops during lecture.  I use the term “took notes” loosely because my back-row observations indicated that these students were spending a considerable amount of the lecture time updating their Facebook status, looking at Power points for other class (e.g. studying for an upcoming O-Chem test), or online shopping.

This trend of multi-tasking and web-surfing during class has been noted across the country and at all levels of higher education and has driven many professors to include penalty clauses in their syllabi or ban laptops altogether.  Moreover, recent studies suggest that note taking on the computer is not as effective as traditional pen and paper.  Students who type their notes tend to do less processing of the material and simply transcribe the lecture verbatim.

So what’s the answer?  Accept technology warts and all, banish it from the lecture hall altogether, or seek some middle ground? To be perfectly honest, I’m not quite sure. But I would love to hear your opinions and experiences….


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Sarah Blythe is an assistant professor of Biology at Washington & Lee University University in Lexington, VA. She received her PhD in Neuroscience from Northwestern University. She teaches anatomy and physiology, vertebrate endocrinology, neurophysiology, and nutrition courses. Her research interests focus on understanding the effects of diet-induced obesity on the brain and the reproductive system. She is a strong advocate for undergraduate research experience both in and out of the classroom. She was recently awarded a Jeffress Trust Interdisciplinary Research grant along with two of her W&L colleagues, which allowed the team to fund three summer research fellowships for undergraduates.


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