Encouraging Distraction? Classroom Experiments with Mobile Media

iPad[This is a guest post by Jason Farman, the author of Mobile Interface Theory: Embodied Space and Locative Media. He is an Assistant Professor of American Studies and Distinguished Faculty Fellow at the University of Maryland, College Park. His website is and he can be found on Twitter at @farman.--@jbj]

The University of Maryland, similar to many colleges and universities in the last couple of years, has made headlines for handing out iPads to students. The University has given iPads to all those accepted into its Digital Cultures and Creativity Program over the last two years. The idea behind giving the students iPads was that they would have a common platform through which they could engage digital objects, data, and other forms of online content.

The iPad in a Living/Learning Community

When I was hired to help launch this living and learning program (where all the students live in the same dorm and take classes in that building with their cohort), I was extremely skeptical about the iPad as an effective classroom tool. I kept thinking of a satirical image I had seen on a tech blog with the headline, “What’s Really Inside the iPad.” The cover is lifted off of the iPad to unveil its intricate inner mechanisms only to reveal that an iPhone is running everything.

But if the iPad had simply been an overgrown iPhone, I think I might know what to do with it in the classroom. In fact, when I was hired, I was initially told that the students would be receiving iPhones or iPod Touch devices. I was elated. This worked right in line with my ongoing research on mobile phone culture.

A couple of months after I was hired, I got an email saying, “Great news! The students are getting iPads instead of iPhones!” Rather than elation, I felt disappointment. How was I going to incorporate a tablet computer like the iPad? I had never owned a tablet and had received a first generation iPad only about a month before I started teaching.

The challenge, for me, was to figure out what practices the iPad promoted that were more dynamic than simply using non-digital tools like pen and paper. Like many ProfHacker writers, I think the best place to start when thinking about incorporating technology into the classroom is by asking the question, “What is the right tool for this particular job?” Sometimes it’s a digital tool and sometimes it’s not. But when we force a digital tool into a classroom scenario where it isn’t the best one for the job, students are extremely quick to pick up on this “tech for tech’s sake” implementation.

However, as I began the semester teaching a small class of 17 honors students, I still was unprepared for how to incorporate the iPad in a way that took full advantage of its capabilities. So, I simply decided to try out every conceivable way of using the iPad that I could think of. This classroom would be a laboratory to see what the iPad could do well and to discover areas where it fell short for classroom use.

When all was said and done, we experimented with using the iPad for a Twitter backchannel, site-specific quizzes, participatory surveillance, location-based gaming, and locative storytelling projects.

Twitter Backchannels and Student Attention

One of the first things I had my students do is to download a Twitter app so they could interact with each other during lecture on that platform. Students created a “Twitter backchannel” that allowed them to post messages that were read in real time by the other students. I required that they do this at least once during the lecture. In their tweets, they could respond to something I said, a comment a student raised in class, or a comment that a student raised on the backchannel. Outside of the classroom, I also had the students offer a response to one of the week’s readings on Twitter before each class session. This meant that for my Tuesday/Thursday class, students had to tweet four times a week.

Mark Sample, along with other ProfHacker contributors, has offered fantastic advice on incorporating Twitter into the classroom and creating backchannels. Twitter is by no means a mobile-only application, but I have found that Twitter is particularly well suited for interactions on a mobile device. The brevity of the messages works well with texting culture and can be implemented on any mobile device. This brevity also offers students a sense of low-cost/high-reward for classroom interactions. Since responding to readings and lecture can be done quickly with only a sentence or two, I have received nearly a 100% response rate each time I’ve used Twitter in the classroom since 2007. My students using the iPads had a 91% response rate using Twitter, some responding as much as 130% more than required.

At the end of my first day, one of my students posted to the Twitter backchannel: “This is certainly the first class I’ve taken where we are encouraged to be distracted by mobile devices.” For me, it was fascinating to speak in front of the classroom on a topic, see the students with their heads buried in their iPads, and occasionally have my lecture interrupted by collective laughter on something said on the backchannel.

Thus, one of the immediate issues of using a tool like the iPad in this way during the class session is the problem of competing spaces of attention. Students engage the Twitter discussion happening and students engage the in-class discussion. But the prevailing idea has been that they cannot effectively do both. So, essentially, it seems like I was requiring that my students be distracted during the class.

The topic of multitasking in the classroom is something that is thoughtfully covered in Cathy Davidson’s book, Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn. From Davidsons’s perspective, multitasking takes on many forms and must be understood within a wide range of contexts. If monotasking was the key to being effective at a task in the 20th Century, then understanding multitasking is the key to success in the 21st Century. Part of that understanding must come in getting rid of the notion that “multitasking” is a single category that describes very diverse and complex activities.

Multitasking and distraction is a topic that I’ve been particularly devoted to, primarily because mobile devices have received some of the harshest criticism for distracting and disconnecting us from “real” engagement. The topic of distraction (couched in terms like “absent presence”) is something I bring up in my recent book, Mobile Interface Theory: Embodied Space and Locative Media. My discussion of this topic is meant to challenge the recent work done by people like Sherry Turkle (Alone Together) and William Powers (Hamlet’s Blackberry), who both argue that, as Powers puts it: “[A]lthough we think of our screens as productivity tools, they actually undermine the serial focus that’s the essence of true productivity. And the faster and more intense our connectedness becomes, the further we move away from that ideal. Digital busyness is the enemy of depth.”

My work in the area of mobile technology and my experience using mobile devices in the classroom gives me some strong reservations with the idea that our devices are luring us away from a deep connection with each other and with our spaces. While our device can and do pull us away from a deep engagement with people and spaces, this doesn’t have to be the default mode for the ways we use our mobile media. Instead, if used in a dynamic way that addresses the medium’s strengths, mobile media can actually get us to engage with each other and with the spaces we move through in deep, meaningful, and context-rich ways.

Let me offer some examples that were motivated by a key question in my research: “How can our mobile devices encourage deep engagement rather than distraction and disconnection?” I wanted to find a way for students to meaningfully engage with each other and with the space of the university campus with their iPads.

The Twitter backchannel was successful at accomplishing this. Since I began using Twitter backchannels in the classroom, a question I often get is, “Are your students paying attention to both your lecture and the Twitter backchannel?” While I think navigating both information streams could be accomplished, I don’t think it’s a requirement for successfully managing the in-class material. It is apparent that the students often shift between the two classroom spheres. Does this “distraction” take them away from engaging with the content I’m presenting? Quite the contrary. From my experience, they are engaged with the material that is being discussed in a much more sustained way because the devices that have typically severed as “distractions” in the past (e.g. using the laptop or the mobile phone to access Facebook) are now being utilized to constantly engage them with the material.

Exploring the Space of Campus

Coupled with the depth fostered in the Twitter backchannel, I wanted the students to explore ways of gaining similar depth with the space of the campus. Throughout the semester we had had three field experiments that explored ways of interacting with the campus with mobile media, experiments that ultimately culminated in their final projects.

The first was a site-specific quiz that I gave them that required them to use their iPads to guide them to different spots on campus. The quiz began with a QR code posted on my office door (I started here so they would all know where my office was located!) that led them to a download of the 7scenes app. 7scenes allows people to attach a variety of content to a map and allows users of the app to unlock that content when they are standing in that location on the map. Using 7scenes as the main interface, I had them interact with several other locative apps — from Broadcastr to Foursquare —to access their quiz questions at locations related to the content we were covering.

In this experiment, the students employed their mobile devices to give them a deeper sense of context for a space that they have become very familiar with. For example, the first quiz question centered on the history of the Rossborough Inn, the oldest building on the University of Maryland campus, which was accessed through an audio narrative I recorded on the Broadcastr app. By getting them to interact with a history of this building that often goes untold and to interrogate the various media that are used to create and distribute these histories, the students were able to practice some of the ideas covered in our reading for that day, Lisa Gitelman’s Always Already New: Media, History, and the Data of Culture.

The second field test we conducted was the practice of locative gaming. This built off of the previous field test to demonstrate that interactions across material space and the space of the digital screen can thoroughly transform the ways we think about and practice space. Prior to this field test, I had them play some location-based games on the iPad like TurfWars and Fleck.

When they arrived to class on the day of the field test, we all went geocaching around campus. Using GPS coordinates to carry out a high-tech treasure hunt for hidden containers, the students are surprised to find out that the campus has been a game board right under their noses. Everyday signs, planters, and walkways can be potential sites for gameplay. This is indeed a very different way to think about a university campus.

The last field test we carried out was the practice of real time participatory surveillance. I had them download the CoMob app, designed by digital media artist Jen Southern, which tracks all users on a map and shows their relational coordinates in real time. As a class, we typically know each other in the very limited context of our classroom, but I wanted them to see what happens to each other immediately after the class session is over. Thus, I ended class early and we all tracked each other’s movements for an hour on the iPad.

The discussion that followed in the next class meeting focused on the questions: “Did your experience of the campus change by knowing where everyone else was in real time?” and “How has location become an important component in the privacy debate?”

Narrative and Mobile Devices

These experiments all culminated in their final group projects in which they had to create a narrative around our campus that was experienced through mobile devices. The three groups each decided to create fictional narratives and used a range of mobile media from websites designed for the iPad, geocaches that contained narrative elements, and one group even built a reverse geocache that held the contents of the story. The projects were a success: they were accepted into the MLA gallery show of electronic literature at the 2012 convention.

Now that the class is over and I am heading into the spring semester and into classes that won’t have the iPad readily available, I am already missing the ability to count on it as a common digital tool for teaching. While some of my experiments didn’t work out the way I had hoped (e.g., using TurningPoint’s ResponseWare app that transforms the iPad into a clicker wasn’t very effective for such a small class), I was excited by the potential of the iPad and other mobile technologies as a means to practice different forms of engagement. I am now a strong believer that these tools, when used correctly, truly foster a deep sense of interpersonal engagement between the students and with the spaces they move through.

I’ll finish up by getting on my soapbox and preaching to the choir (among other clichés): Soon, if it hasn’t happened already, every teacher in higher education will have to develop a strategy for mobile phone use in the classroom (whether that be to integrate the technology or to ban it). Currently, mobile phones are the most pervasive computing technology in existence. There are currently over 5.3 billion mobile phone subscribers worldwide. In a planet of around 7 billion people, that’s around 76% of the world that has access to — and uses — a mobile phone. Almost all of our students have them. The mobile device is something that they have on them throughout the day and has become embedded into the fabric of their everyday lives.

While it will be some time before the same can be said of tablet computers like the iPad, it is still worth noting at this stage that simply responding to these pervasive technologies by banning them from the classroom does little to address the importance of these media in our students’ everyday lives. From my perspective, as an educator, I must respond those practices that have become pervasive in the lives of my students, demonstrate that there are many ways to use these tools, and, ultimately, show them how to analyze and critique their own everyday practices. I am taking small steps toward figuring out the best techniques to achieve those goals.

Photo “iPad Image 1″ by Jason Farman. Used by permission.

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