November 15, 2010 12:06 am

Texting times for teachers

 

Faculty find it challenging to capture students’ attention with traditional lectures

Inga Carboni, an assistant professor at the College of William and Mary Mason School of Business, has banned laptops and mobile phones in her classroom. She finds that students are surfing the web and texting during her lectures, but she embraces technology in other ways.

Prof Carboni, who teaches organisational behaviour, regularly uses video clips and audio files to illustrate points and stimulate classroom debate. To introduce a lesson about different leadership styles, for instance, she shows a covertly recorded half-time “pep” talk by the bombastic basketball coach Bobby Knight on YouTube.

“Far from being simply a classroom diversion, I find that these materials deepen learning for this generation,” she says.

As business schools and faculty decide how best to engage this tech-savvy generation, many are incorporating multimedia; blogs, video clips, audio files and other virtual technologies, into courses and seminars – a shift in teaching that many faculty say enriches the learning experience.

Generation Y, or the Millennial Generation, is a group of young people some 70m strong, aged between
15 and 30. They grew up immersed in a digital world, accustomed to instant messaging, surfing the internet, listening to music and watching television simultaneously. Many can scarcely remember their lives before Facebook. Capturing their attention in the classroom with a traditional lecture and case study discussion is a challenge.

Sam Dunn, chief information officer at Babson College’s Olin Graduate School of Business, says: “The way this new generation learns and the dynamics of how these young people take in information is very different.

“One of the challenges is around attention span. To ask them to sit down and read a book for three hours, they can’t handle it. This generation wants to learn on demand – to click and learn – and in a sense, they’re demanding that we move to their learning styles,” he says.

“Our faculty needs to deliver content the way they’re used to digesting it. One of the things we’re doing is continuing to move more and more into multimedia.” In this spirit, business schools around the globe have fitted out their buildings with a range of technology to enable faculty to jump seamlessly between videos, spreadsheets, websites and Powerpoint slides. Many are trying out software to help students take notes while recording audio versions of lectures; some professors ask their students to bring cellphones to class to enable polling on classroom discussion topics via text message.

Business schools, including Babson and Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, are experimenting with video conferencing systems that enable professors to include broadcasts of guest speakers in remote locations. They also use this technology to enable off-campus students to join in discussions.

“Bringing social IT to education this is a very big shift,” says Mr Dunn.

Professors are integrating technology tailored to the learning style preferences of Gen Y in other ways too.

Tom Smith, assistant professor of finance at Emory’s Goizueta School of Business, for instance, takes a hands-on approach to his course on macroeconomics. Students come to his class armed with a Mac and throughout the course are required to download official government data, graph the real gross domestic product and then alter percentages to understand better what the data reveal.

“This generation wants material to be relevant and to the point,” says Prof Smith. “Rather than waxing on about the theory, we look at specific situations. Eventually, their questions lead back to the theory and the ideas that are covered in the text. But they have to make it relevant. I get very high marks from my students about this approach: they know trends, changes and where information is available and they can hold their own in a debate.”

Of course it is not a given that new technology in the classroom heightens the learning experience; some say including gizmos and gadgets detracts from the quality of discussion.

Bill Gribbons, director of the information design programme at the McCallum School of Business at Bentley University near Boston, is selective about his use of technology. “Pedagogically you have to think about what you’re looking to achieve: a video may be better to deliver particular content, but a lecture for other content is better than a blog.” he says.

“What I worry is about the professors who are [embracing technology] just for the entertainment value . . .  We have to be careful about how we exploit the technology because it can promote shallow thinking.”

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