Technology Policies: Are Some Better than Others?

Students now arrive in our classrooms with a wide array of electronic devices. They also arrive used to being able to use those devices wherever and whenever they please. Should that include the classroom? The research is pretty conclusive that most students don't multitask well (certainly not as well as they think they do), and when they are attending to those devices they are not focusing on what's happening in class. But enforcing a ban on electronic devices can be difficult and time consuming, to say nothing of the adversarial relationship it cultivates between the teacher and students. Some teachers have decided that using the devices makes more sense than banning them. They have their students finding relevant information, locating answers, and even asking and responding to questions.

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Students now arrive in our classrooms with a wide array of electronic devices. They also arrive used to being able to use those devices wherever and whenever they please. Should that include the classroom? The research is pretty conclusive that most students don't multitask well (certainly not as well as they think they do), and when they are attending to those devices they are not focusing on what's happening in class. But enforcing a ban on electronic devices can be difficult and time consuming, to say nothing of the adversarial relationship it cultivates between the teacher and students. Some teachers have decided that using the devices makes more sense than banning them. They have their students finding relevant information, locating answers, and even asking and responding to questions. Faculty writing about technology policies usually recommend one or the other of these options: forbid the use of technology in the class or integrate it fully with course material. Generally faculty opinions on the topic are strongly held. “What remains unclear is the extent to which such policies foster or undermine instructional outcomes.” (p. 302) And that's the underlying question that has motivated several studies by Ledbetter and Finn, who report that their previous work “suggests that the relationship between teacher technology policies and instructional outcomes is complex and functions together with other instructor communication behaviors.” (p. 302) In this study, these researchers investigated the extent to which teacher technology policies predicted learner empowerment or “the student's motivation to achieve educational goals.” (p. 302). They predicted that if the teacher's technology policies aligned with students' technology expectations, then learner empowerment would improve. To address this and several other related hypotheses, the researchers looked at these two teacher policies—those that encouraged technology use and those that discouraged its use. They found that “students are most likely to feel that the course is valuable (meaningfulness) and that their participation makes a difference (impact) [both of these being established measures of empowerment] when the teacher highly encourages students to use technology for course-related purposes.” (p. 312) Another hypothesis proposed that if teachers moderately discouraged non-course-relevant use of technology that would also be associated with increased student empowerment. However, results here were opposite of what they predicted. Students were less empowered when the teacher moderately discouraged non-course-related technology usage than when the teacher either strongly discouraged or minimally discouraged its use. They offer this implication of these results: “Although students may indeed prefer that instructors use a moderate level of technology, perhaps what is most important regarding technology policies is that the teacher has explicit rules regarding the use of technology in the classroom, clearly communicates the rules, and consistently enforces the rules.” (p. 312) This is a small study, and it addressed only one of many possible student outcomes. Nonetheless, it is interesting that discouraging the use of technology for non-course-related activities did not diminish how empowered these students felt about the course and their learning in it. Empowerment, or the motivation to learn, in this study suffered when teachers did not clearly either forbid it or permit it. Reference: Ledbetter, A. M., & Finn, A. N. (2013). Teacher technology policies and online communication apprehension as predictors of learner empowerment. Communication Education, 62(3), 301-317.