Dr. Thomas Shea has been a biology professor at UMass Lowell for 24 years, and has watched classrooms transition from paper to PC with alarming speed. He has seen computers help his students reach amazing heights in the classroom, from conducting cutting-edge research to crafting good PowerPoint presentations.
But that influx of technology came with consequences. Now when Dr. Shea looks out at his class, he sometimes looks out onto a sea of cell phones. And as the use of technology grows, he has even noticed many of his colleagues banning all devices from their classrooms entirely, just to get even a fraction of students to focus on passing the class.
Many professors are calling to condemn personal technology in class; Dr. Shea, however, does not think the answer to better grades and better participation is to outlaw a possible teaching tool. In fact, he thinks his students’ fascination with technology is the key to teaching in the modern world.
Dr. Shea’s life science students are required to buy his very own online textbook. Almost the entire class is online: the slides, the book and the exams can all be found on a student’s laptop, computer or phone. The only in-class portion of the class is a lecture, where Dr. Shea goes through his PowerPoint slides and answers questions with a state-of-the-art microphone and a Neil deGrasse Tyson-esque wonder.
Dr. Shea often models asking Siri questions and encourages students to do the same. This can come as a shock to students who are used to hearing, “Put the phones away.” Dr. Shea, however, feels this is the best way to teach to tech-savvy students.
Students need to be engaged in the material if they want to learn, but may be hesitant to do so nowadays especially if the information is in a weighty textbook. Hence, Dr. Shea created an online book, where students can access the information anywhere they have their phones (in other words, everywhere). On their phones, students are more inclined to peruse, read and learn, and they will always bring their “book” to class. Already, Dr. Shea has found that students are more receptive to the information and more engaged with an online book. “That is their world. You gotta go into their world,” Dr. Shea said. “If I get my book into the device you love, you’ll accept it, and hopefully understand it more.”
Dr. Shea also encourages students to use their phones during exams, not because it is less work (and by no means does he “dumb down” any material), but because it is more work.
Looking up an answer and sifting through tons of information encourages synthesizing, thinking and internalizing rather than memorization. “You have to structure the questions so, you know, you won’t find the exact sentence,” he said. “But I want you to take the exam home, I want you to search for the answers.” He would rather a student look through websites pertaining to a question they are unsure about, rather than guess on it or memorize it, only to immediately forget it a day later. By allowing phones and laptops, Dr. Shea is allowing a form of active participation during exams that is not even possible with paper tests.
Dr. Shea’s online classroom is almost sneaky; it enforces critical thinking by giving students the tools to dig deeper while they are searching for a solution, even if they are using their phones. If someone needs to look up the answer, they are prepared to dig for it, to question and to learn. His students act like scientists without even meaning to.
The way Dr. Shea sees it, technology’s imperfections should by no means be a reason to be wary of it. No classroom method is perfect, and with the method he uses, the reward is much greater than the risks. Free online, students interact with the material, learn things the class may not cover, and most importantly question rather than memorize: all things they cannot do with just paper and a pen.
There are always going to be those who do not pay attention, and there always have been. To Dr. Shea, it is about making information accessible, interesting and engaging for those that do, and he will continue to adapt his teaching style with technology until the end of his career. “If I can’t bring it to you, I don’t belong here,” he said.