By Prof. Tonya Kowalski, Washburn University School of Law
All right, I confess: I’m not a true Luddite. I do appreciate gadgets as much as the next person, and I do use classroom technology when I need to do something really specific, such as show a video clip or (frequently) display something on the document camera. But increasingly, I find myself enjoying going back to basics in the classroom. There are no smelly, purple-inked mimeo sheets (ah, memories of Sister Angela’s iron rule…). But handouts are now standard fare again.
I used to rely heavily on PowerPoint presentations to structure my classes, believing that having a visual reference would help the students (and me) to keep on track. But often I noticed that even in a no-laptops classroom, the screen at the front of the room tended to capture students’ attention more than the discussion, thus reducing eye contact and dropping some of the energy out of the room.
For me, a low-tech approach has dovetailed nicely with an increasingly “flipped” approach to classroom modules, where half or more of the time is spent on exercises, and the rest on lecture, review, and discussion. I reduce the exercise and perhaps some diagrams to a handout or two, and we work from that for the class. Laptops and phones are stowed away. At least in my small-to-midsize classes, I find that the having no distractions either at the desk or at the front of the room is encouraging more participation and engagement. Students are usually looking up unless they are working on an exercise alone or in groups. They don’t spend an inordinate amount of time taking notes (i.e., writing down everything on the slide), and can’t be dependent on slides to organize the material for them. Instead, the handout provides some organization and students must fill in the rest.
What works for each educator will depend on personality, comfort levels with the material, affinity for technology, and the subject matter itself. But if, like me, you tend to find using technology for most of the class session a bit distracting to the students and instructor, there are a number of upsides to going low-tech. More selective use of technology can reinvigorate the classroom—in small doses, it regains its power to awaken, especially when used just up to that 10-minute attention-span limit. The course website or TWEN site can help to “flip” tech outside the classroom. Finally, students and professors can get a break from the constant presence of electronic information. For that last reason alone, a classroom low on tech and high on human contact many actually be the next big thing.