The Tech-Enabled Learning Environment: Digital Literacy

How tech-enabled classrooms are changing responsibilities on both sides of the podium.

The adage “You can’t stop progress” rings as true as ever inside the walls of academia.

New technology continues to emerge and influence the higher-education learning environment, and the exposure to these advancements influences the way all of us communicate – some more than others.

Students now own all the hardware and software they want, from one source or another, and they combine it with immediate and unlimited access to digital content, resources, and databases. They’re connected to nearly everything at all times, making them the most technologically equipped students in history.

Along with this, the recent Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) initiative encourages students to use their own personal electronic devices (smartphones, tablets) during class time to supplement learning. When available,  most students will choose to participate with their devices, showing a propensity to lean on the digital world to enhance and improve their learning outcomes.

With these new challenges come new opportunities in maintaining integrity in the learning process and, as a result, in the classroom. The opportunities for students to learn increase, but so do the opportunities to lose control of class and discussion. Cheating, unfortunately, is easier than ever as well when students can connect outside of the classroom in private online communities at the press of a button.

front and back end classroom facilitation

The unspoken objection by some in the adopting of edtech currently sounds something like this: “It is easier to keep teaching the same way than to learn new pedagogy and teaching tools.”

For some others, though, these opportunities act as a call to action.

Two Leading Approaches…

Historically,  we’ve observed two prevailing methodologies for preserving a classroom’s integrity.

  1. Rule Compliance – This tells students what they can do and what they can’t do. The teacher sets rules, the students follow them – or they don’t – and the consequences follow as outlined ahead of time.
  2. Honor System – This method offers guidelines for students on what they should do, establishing a moral compass that can support learning and goals. In some schools and to some students, this means something. To others, it does not.

When integrating technology into the learning process, a hybrid of the two methods is often applied to best preserve integrity. The balance is dictated by the educator, and it is based on appropriateness, applicability, impact on learning, personal style and skill set. This requires the professor to become more invested with his students and how they operate, something that ultimately may result in better outcomes for both sides.

In order to establish a healthy tech-culture, though, the educator must become a digital citizen. This is an understanding of what you can use in the classroom as much as it is a working understanding of how students communicate today.

We mentioned in our last post that preparing students for the real world requires us to prepare them to be digitally literate, and this mentality holds true in the modern classroom. However, it also holds true for the professor. To connect with the evolving student of today, the professor too must stay up-to-date and literate with current technologies.

For education professionals, this task can be daunting. Professors are trained in teaching and in their subject matter, not in the changing technology that can bring it to their students. Oftentimes, this deters them from learning new technologies altogether. Being wrong or being misinformed can be embarrassing for a professor, so it becomes their duty to learn the technology on their own or in a workshop-type environment then correctly apply it to their classes.

Leveraging it incorrectly is potentially  more harmful than not leveraging it at all, so many take the noncommittal route over potential failure.

From The Professor…

Personally, I’m an advocate of purposeful technology in the classroom. From entertainment to engagement, technology offers me different ways to improve my material and my classroom. As an educator, I like having options and I’ll often test, from semester to semester, what works and what works better.

I also use technology to communicate, both for personal and professional purposes. Multiple devices, multiple platforms, multiple formats. It’s part of my profession as well as my personal style. This comfort level, and the success I have in the classroom, is what keeps me in the edtech game.

I also see my students using the same tech and the same tools, and they respond to the media that are most like theirs. When I use a medium they do not understand it impedes their interest, their ability, and their engagement. When we meet somewhere in the middle, though, we both get what we want out of class.

To maximize the effectiveness of this strategy, a culture of responsibility and trust is required to foster the classroom dynamic and to encourage collaboration from all stakeholders in the educational experience. A tech-enabled classroom, in this example, requires inputs from both professor and students to create valuable outputs.

Traditionally, classroom technology has been created to integrate within the confines of existing systems of curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment. Today, these edtech innovations, combined with the widespread adoption and access to Internet, are transforming the old educational infrastructure and creating a fresh set of challenges and opportunities left to be explored. And what better place to do this than in academic institutions?

Where edtech used to be a specialty, and it’s now compulsory. Digital literacy (for educators ) helps you get hired and stay relevant among the new breed of educators who are coming into teaching already mobile-savvy and equipped to integrate modern technologies into their lesson plans.

Stay on top of current technologies and how you can leverage them in the classroom, and you can stay afloat – and thrive – in the modern teaching environment.

From The Student…

Right now, I am just a couple semesters away from completing my undergraduate coursework, and in my experience with higher education, it has felt very transitive in nature. Early on, I thought education was something that was done to me – a one-way street where the teacher teaches, I listen, and the conversation ends there.

Recently, I have noticed a slow but steadily growing body of students who want a voice in their learning process. This growing population of students see education as something to be done with and by students, rather than just to us. They’re tearing down the one-way street signs and opening up multi-lane educational highways.

If it is true that learners more readily adopt and adapt technology, perhaps technology has an important role to play in encouraging student expression, creating more meaningful connections, and increasing the motivation to engage in the learning process.

Combined with useful analytics, a more sophisticated approach to our evaluations and assessments can be developed to result in better learning outcomes moving forward.

What We Know Works…

The power of candor.  San Diego State University’s Dr. Jennifer Imazeki has explored this topic in great detail, producing several insightful studies and reports as a result.

Recently, she talked about utilizing the BYOD approach to create better learning outcomes. Chiefly, she suggested treating students like adults. While it may seem obvious, it’s not a tenant that is universally applied in the modern classroom.

Telling students up front they will be expected to use their mobile devices to answer questions throughout the lecture – not to send texts, snaps, or tweets – Dr. Imazeki establishes a baseline level of respect and appropriate use of technology. This is a perfect example of the hybrid “rule compliance” and “honor system” we mentioned earlier. There’s no explicit penalty to using a mobile device improperly, but she plays on the students’ morality  a touch by letting them know on day one it’s inappropriate and unbecoming to do so.

Engage, engage, engage. When students get bored, they drift away, and they fall back on the methods of combatting boredom they use at home: their mobile devices or laptops. By repeatedly engaging students, Dr. Imazaki concludes, professors can better reach their students and keep them tuned-in for the lesson’s duration.

“I am convinced that the best weapon against any of these distractions is to make sure students are fully-engaged in the class,” she says. “If I see too many students on their phones when I think they should not be, it is a signal to me that I must do something to re-engage their attention.”

Limit response times to reduce the temptation to cheat. Given enough time to respond to in-class prompts, students will find a way to cheat. One text to a friend, one quick scan of Google search results, and they can find the correct answer quickly and easily. By limiting response times to “about one minute,” Dr. Imazeki finds, students are less inclined to cheat. It’s simply not enough time to get what they’re looking for, and they’ll instead work to answer the question as intended.

It’s important to note that innovation in higher education does not necessarily require high-tech or complex solutions. Often, innovation is about establishing an attitude or culture around solutions that use existing, easy-to-use and common ideas that are a familiar part of learners’ everyday lives, such as social networks, games, and discussion forums. By managing the culture of the classroom, as Dr. Imazeki does, one can improve learning outcomes and teaching outcomes alike.

Tech-based Checks and Balances

One of the biggest and most common challenges educators face is maintaining integrity in more qualitative forms of evaluation. Turnitin is a tool that analyzes students written work and checks for plagiarism within the content. Having a system to pre-screen for this type of behavior saves significant time off the grading process.

Respondus is another useful tool that provides a lockdown browser to allow for test taking on laptops and PCs. Students engaged in the test are unable to search. As distance learning and hybrid courses become more popular, it’s important to become familiar with new-age methods of dishonesty and understand the solutions to help curb this behavior.

CourseKey is a tool that opens up the two-way educational highways and removes the one-way barriers of the traditional lectures. A unique combination of classroom management and social learning tools offers both students and educators performance and engagement analytics that keep both parties updated on their progress during the entire academic period. Too often the real-time learning environment is unable to capture the learning activity data and tools like these help make this type of information useful.

The Next Step…

The success of technology in the classroom is contingent on the context, culture, and circumstances in which the adoption is executed.

New technologies for learning cannot replace educators – but unless educators know how to leverage these tools, learning will never get any better, either. There’s a clear crossroads in today’s higher-education environment where educators need to adapt and integrate students’ own communications, mobile and online preferences, resulting in many opportunities to engage in new, innovative ways. Identifying the motivation for these being in the classroom helps provide insight into what an educator should choose and how they can be best implemented.

For professors: Do you find educational technology to play a supportive or disruptive role in higher education? How do you minimize students’ improper use of technology in the classroom to maintain classroom integrity.

For students: How do professors engage you with technology inside the classroom? What makes you want to stay off your phone or computer when you’re in class?

Join the conversation and tell us what you’ve experienced on campus.

As we continue to analyze and discuss more issues like this one throughout the blog series, our collective contributions will prove valuable. Share the article with a friend or colleague and see what they think, as well. All of us know more than one of us.

Follow authors Kevin Popovic and Ryan Vanshur as we continue to share our own experiences and insights. Please connect with us on LinkedIn to speak directly.

Download ebook: Creating Engagement in the Classroom


San Diego State University Lecturer Kevin Popović and SDSU student Ryan Vanshur combine their learnings about improving the classroom dynamic with their mutual experience and research, creating an insightful look into the strategies and technologies that influence today’s faculty and students.

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