Turning distraction into engagement

Julie Eble
August 25, 2015

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Sophomore Emma Caldicott considers herself an avid cellphone user and, like most college students her age, uses her iPhone to keep up with assignments and class schedules, communicate with friends and family, and monitor her social media sites. So she was thrilled when her sociology teacher, Sam Richards, encouraged her and others in the class to use their smartphones during class.

“Most of my instructors usually require students to put away cellphones or turn them off during class,” said Caldicott. “So it was interesting to look around the room to see most of my classmates clicking and swiping away on their phones.”

Today, nearly two-thirds of a typical college student’s day is spent using his or her cellphone. Although some faculty members view them as a distraction in the classroom, others, like Richards, are finding ways to put cellphones and other mobile devices to positive use.

“If you can’t beat ‘em, you might as well join ‘em,” said Richards, a senior lecturer of sociology. “For me, it’s about getting out ahead of the wave and finding cool ways to establish a behavior for students to use their cellphones to learn and think critically inside and outside of class.”

Richards encourages his students to use their smartphones or other electronic devices during class to post data, share links, answer questions or reference sources available online that relate to class discussions.

As part of ongoing assignments for his class, Richards requires his students to have a Twitter account for use with their class hashtag, #fresheyes, as well as access to Flipgrid — an iPhone app that enables his students to automatically upload a 90-second video response to a question onto the class site for all to see. To help continue the conversation outside of class, students are prompted to use their cellphones to tweet things that are related to class discussions and give their opinion or respond to something in the lecture.

“Enabling students to use their cellphones improves their research skills and creates great discussions points,” said Richards. “With Flipgrid they have the opportunity to re-examine the world and challenge what they believe to be their place in it.”

In addition to using Twitter and Flipgrid, Richards incorporates a technology-based polling system to engage class discussions in real-time. After he poses a question during class, students text their answer to a five-digit number and the responses show up on a screen in front of the class.

“I really want them using their cellphones because I want learning to be integrated into the rest of their lives and something that happens at anyplace and anytime,” said Richards. “So if they’re sitting in a restaurant or at a baseball game and they have an epiphany about something we’ve talked about in class, I want them to be able to tweet about it right then and there.”

Richards is just one of several faculty members at Penn State who have found ways to incorporate cellphones in the classroom.

Will Yurman, a senior lecturer of communications, teaches courses on digital photography. Although he spends most of his class time talking about high-end DSLR cameras and such basics as composition, lighting and interacting with human subjects, he understands the ease and immediacy cellphones bring to photojournalism.

“The nice thing about using cellphones for photography is that the learning curve is very low because just about everyone has one and knows how to take a picture with them,” said Yurman. “With cellphones, I don’t have to worry about teaching the technical aspects of photography because the basics of what makes a good picture translate from a cellphone to a regular camera and from a high-end camera to a video camera.”

Each fall and spring Yurman’s beginning photography students have the opportunity to cover such events as THON and homecoming weekend through the InstaTHON and InstaLion smartphone projects he co-teaches with his colleague, John Beale.

During this year’s THON, the students went behind the scenes to set up a backdrop and lighting and worked in shifts to use their cellphones to take portraits of people at THON. Because the photos could be taken quickly with a cellphone, the students took approximately 7,000 shots during the first 24 hours of THON.

“The students were able to get compelling portraits of family members, dancers and volunteer staff, basically anyone who’s walking by,” said Yurman.

The pictures were then posted to an Instagram site that fed live to the InstaTHON website.

The InstaLion project, on the other hand, creates an opportunity for students to learn field photojournalism. Using only their cellphones, students photograph visitors to the Lion Shrine over homecoming weekend. During the event last year, hundreds of photos were posted to the InstaLion site as quickly as the students could upload them.

“For me, it’s about teaching them how to think about composition, lighting and what makes a telling image rather than what device they’re using,” Yurman said. “So I’ll continue to formulate strategies for adopting cellphones as part of the instruction.”

The University's Cellular Steering Committee understands the importance of cellular technology on campus and in the classroom and is currently focusing on increasing coverage, capacity and capability at Penn State's campuses.

The committee, made up of members from several disciplines and administrative areas throughout University Park and other Penn State campuses, meets regularly to discuss cellphone use in education and research, business operations, emergency communications, and fan experiences at concerts and sporting events.

“Because cellphone technology has gone beyond placing a simple call, we know that students, instructors, staff and visitors are using their cellphones to keep up with assignments and class schedules, communicate with classmates, friends and colleagues, and become aware of campus alerts and warnings, to name a few,” said Ron Dodson, director of special projects in Penn State’s Telecommunications and Networking Services and a member of the steering committee. “So we are working with our cellular vendors to improve coverage across all Penn State campuses.”

This bodes well for instructors like Richards and Yurman.

“It’s definitely a challenge for me to create a learning experience that incorporates technology into the classroom that my students use on a daily basis. I just need to make the class more interesting than what’s on Instagram or the Angry Birds game,” said Richards. “I figure if I’m not more interesting than a cellphone, then I need to step up my game.”

For more IT stories at Penn State, visit http://news.it.psu.edu.

  • Flipgrid web screen

    Students in Sam Richard’s sociology course can use their cellphones to record and upload videos to the class's Flipgrid site.

    IMAGE: Courtesy of Sam Richards
  • InstaTHON

    Photojournalism students take cellphone portraits of people during THON.

    IMAGE: Courtesy of Will Yurman
  • InstaLion

    Glenn Thiel, former Penn State men’s lacrosse coach, and his wife, Sally, pose with the Lion Shrine for a photojournalism project.

    IMAGE: Courtesy of Will Yurman
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Last Updated August 25, 2015