Reflecting on the Role of Technology in the Classroom


This week I want to focus on the question of technology in the classroom, specifically how a critical pedagogy may integrate various types of technology in the classroom. It has regularly been my experience, both as a student and now more recently as an instructor, that students feel a certain attachment to having technology in the classroom. Specifically, their laptops. I want to reflect briefly on how my technology policy has changed and how teaching research methods in class requires increasing attention towards navigating the Internet. That is, I have expected students to have proficiency navigating the library website and procuring sources for research from reputable journals; however, I am usually left quite disappointed.

One of the most difficult decisions I have made with my class concerns my technology policy, specifically as it pertains to cell-phones and laptops in class. It has long been my experience as a student and instructor that laptops are often sites of distraction. Sometimes it is the more innocuous email check, which admittedly I have done myself, to scrolling through Facebook, to even seeing students watching Netflix. As a student, seeing this was usually a distraction for me and I think worsened class, as it often felt like the material we were discussing was not being taken seriously. As an instructor in my first course I allowed students to use laptops, but regularly a handful of students would sit in the back and I noticed they regularly were writing emails or on spreadsheets for other coursework. Jesse Stommel writes, “I am uncomfortable with ‘bans’ because my philosophy and values bend towards a privileging of student agency and responsibility. They have the right to make bad choices which may result in poor grades or a diminished intellectual experience. That right does not extend to harming others, but this is why I frame the classroom as a community with an ethos including responsibility to others.” While I agree with Stommel that ultimately if it only hurts the individual student it is up to them to figure out habits that work for them and suffer the potential consequences, I felt in this course it dramatically changed the discussion component of the class, as these students rarely had anything to contribute and discussion centered on fewer students.

I intervened and asked them to put their laptops away, but ultimately it was clear that the damage was done and these students never really caught up with what they missed. For the following semester, I banned laptops entirely, instead asking students to print out assigned readings and bring them to class. I explained my reasoning and past experience, and while all did not agree, this was widely accepted. I found that class discussion improved dramatically as a result and students were most focused on what their peers were saying and did not have ‘tunnel-vision’, even if they were taking copious notes. There is a digital disconnect even with the students who are using technology for class purposes where they are not engaged with the entire class discussion. Importantly, I do allow students to use it if they need to, such as for potential accessibility issues. I do not ask them to ask me for permission, but I make it clear the policy and act them to respect it if at all possible.

However, now with Zoom, I feel this is an aspect I can no longer control. The most common response I get is an overwhelming Zoom-burnout. Many students complain of having trouble focusing for more than 30 minutes on the platform. I institute breaks usually halfway through and utilize breakout groups, but I have no ability to control or really tell if they are paying attention or using other platforms. As much as I try to maximize the capabilities of the Zoom platform and adapt my pedagogy to the digital, I find it excessively difficult to recreate close discussion and get a clear sense of how students are receiving material.


Finally, I want to focus briefly on integrating more specifically digital methods in courses. I wholeheartedly agree with Kirschner and De Bruyckere that the myth of the ‘digital native’ is just that: a myth. It has been my experience that students are startling ill-equipped to do academic research, with over three-quarters of my students voicing that they do not know how to access library databases and journals to find sources for papers. I teach a 3000 level course that is populated overwhelmingly by juniors and seniors. I now am working on prepping for next semester an entire day that covers how to get the most out of the university’s resources, as well as how to navigate the internet more widely for pertinent sources. It is strange since I know it is common practice that librarians are asked to show students how to do these practices, but maybe they just never pay attention. In short, I think it suffices to say that it is absolutely the case that the vast majority of students are not ‘digital natives.’ Despite receiving training, they regularly fail to conduct even basic research methods in their work.


In short, I find the question of technology in the classroom an ambivalent one. I err on the side of having less technology in the classroom, as it oftentimes impedes close conversation between peers, although I see its potential necessities. Despite their attachment to having this technology, I have found students to be on the whole very inadequate at utilizing technology for research purposes. I am interested in hearing how others approach this issue and how they make their decisions. The basis of my decision to limit technology in the classroom (at least in terms of students with laptops) is to focus their attention on each other and to talk to each other, as well as to ensure they are printing out readings (I have received feedback that most students only skim on electronic pdfs). Alternatively, I seek to spend more time in class discussing digital research methods, since most students admit they are new or unsure about navigating the Internet for academic research.



Kirschner, Paul A., and Pedro De Bruyckere. “The Myths of the Digital Native and the Multitasker.” Teaching and Teacher Education 67 (October 1, 2017): 135–42.

Stommel, Jesse. “Decoding Digital Pedagogy, Pt. 2: (Un)Mapping the Terrain.” Hybrid Pedagogy, March 5, 2013.


Thinking about ‘Teamwork’ in the Classroom

This week I am going to reflect on the concepts of problem-based learning (PBL) and case-based learning (CBL). PBL is defined as an “active learning pedagogical approach” that concerns producing and resolving a “challenging open-ended problem.”[1] This pedagogical approach is contrasted to more traditional classroom orientations, such as the lecture form in which the Professor, designated as the one with knowledge, bestows knowledge on the students who receive, memorize, and internalize that knowledge. PBL, on the other hand, is conceptualized as being more applicable to the real-world, better suited for larger groups, and, also, in its very design, incorporates student participation. The largest upside is this last point, as it is student participation or “teamwork” that is a skill that has to be modeled and practiced in the classroom, in order that students, when they reach the workplace, are productive employees capable of working beneath, alongside, and in charge of others. Thus, there are seven further characteristics associated with increasing teamwork capabilities: creating a common purpose, defining a clear goal, generating psychological safety (which is closely tied to making risk palatable and thus increasing innovation), defining clear roles for each member, instituting proper, respectful communication, practicing conflict resolution when it arises, and encouraging accountable interdependence. My interest with this post is to reflect on how problem-based learning can be applied to the social sciences and humanities, instead of engineering projects. It seems to me that the task, at least as I approach the classroom, is slightly different. Without denigrating teamwork and its associated skills, I aim to cultivate critical thinking, skepticism, research skills, as well as what it means to engage in political conversation with others. These skills are surely crucial in Engineering projects as well, however, it seems worth reflecting on a bit more how this might work in practice.

Oftentimes my pedagogical practice is far less about construction than deconstruction. What I mean by this is that the most common starting point in an undergraduate course is getting the students to identify themselves in the reading. How are they positioned in relation to the text, where do they stand in the world, and, also, how do they engage in conversation with others who are located differently? This is not to say this is a static process but constitutes in some ways what Antonio Gramsci refers to as taking an ‘inventory’ of oneself. In a political conversation, then, the first step is not the construction of a common goal, but perhaps recognizing the impossibility of a common goal. Put slightly differently, what if there is no political ‘we’? What ‘we’ am I a member of? What does it mean that my ‘goals’ might be incommensurable with others (in the classroom or the text)? These questions may all have answers, or they may not, but in any case, it is difficult for me to abide by the fact there can be assumed a priori a common goal in-class discussion.

Through discussion, then, goals will be more elusive and changing. As students engage with the texts, and I may interject and guide discussion as a participant, students will practice skills of close reading and be attentive to the conversation (at least this is what is hoped for). Psychological safety is assured through mutual respect, although this is not equated with comfortability (see my last post on the concept of safe spaces). Class is typically designed so that students are at times listening, speaking, writing and taking notes, or presenting. Accountable interdependence is one of the seven characteristics that I think is important as well for my classroom, as this sort of class structure that I am describing requires that students do read the text closely before class. I do not ask that they ‘master’ the text, but if it occurs that half of the class (or more) has not read the class, the class discussion will surely suffer. In other words, I think PBL is not at odds with the type of pedagogy that I am describing, but I think it is slightly different.

Now, another line of inquiry one could pursue would be what would it mean to generate a PBL exercise for my classroom? I recall at a previous institution we simulated the invasion of Iraq, with some students taking the perspective of the CIA and others the State Department. Many of my peers quite enjoyed the opportunity to ‘role-play’ and ‘play-out’ the institutional tensions between the two bureaucracies conflicting goals. The simulation was thus designed to ‘apply’ the reading in order to exemplify how ‘real’ these tensions were. Surely, this is part of priming students for when they occupy positions in similar institutions as well. This might be an example of PBL in which students are divvied up into groups, given a problem, and then tasked with coming up with a ‘plan’ to ‘solve’ the problem. However, while I see the pedagogical objective in such exercises, I am not sure they can, or at least oftentimes, risk failing to cultivate critical thinking. Another, quite different, example may help draw the contrast between potential approaches to PBL. In another class, we students were tasked with creating an ‘Archive’ of our readings. The Archive was quite welcoming of our interpretations. During our readings, we were asked to write down lines that spoke to us, as well as the thoughts we had while reading. We were tasked with not only reading lines of text but reading what was outside the text, so to speak. How were we in the text? What lay in between or just outside what was written? We kept our own individual Archives and after a number of weeks, the Professor cut off a long strip of white construction paper, maybe 25-30 feet in length (about the length of the entire classroom). He put the paper down in the middle of the classroom and we started writing entries of our Archive on this collective Archive. We then had a conversation about the readings and reflected on this collective work. I think both these examples can roughly be called PBL exercises in which various aspects of ‘teamwork’ are cultivated, but the latter operates on a principle of deconstruction, but which ultimately ‘constructs’ many lines of inquiry. I do not mean to suggest PBL is not worthwhile, but I do think it is worth reflecting on how pedagogical orientations travel across disciplines and towards what ends.


[1] Homero Murzi et al., “Working in Large Teams: Measuring the Impact of a Teamwork Model to Facilitate Teamwork Development in Engineering Students Working in a Real Project,” International Journal of Engineering Education 36 (January 8, 2020), p. 275.