Updating pedagogy for the mobile phone era


I had some unanticipated teaching challenges last spring, when I was teaching a couple sections of an intro-level organismal biology lab. I was befuddled, because on the lab reports, students were getting some straightforward questions wrong. Remarkably wrong in an unexpected manner, nearly all with the same wrong answer.

This might sound like a red flag for a situation where students were not doing the work on their own. But that’s not what was going on. I was in the lab when they were working, and my students were clearly spending time at the various lab stations, putting in diligent time.

What made this situation weirder is that I wrote most of these labs myself, when I joined the department 11 years ago. For a little while, I taught this lab on the regular, but I think it had been at least eight years. When I taught the lab earlier, students were definitely not getting this kind of wrong answer that they were getting now. So what had changed? Me as an instructor? The way the lab was set up? The student population? What they’ve been getting in the lecture course? It wasn’t clear to me, until it was.

What changed was cell phones. When I last taught this lab, shortly after the start of the Obama administration, it wasn’t entirely routine for students to whip out their phones to look up information. I designed the lab for students to consult materials, with some self-directed inquiry, to be able to answer the questions. The lab provided context, of course, but I wanted them to use  textbooks and other available reference material, to piece things together. I thought it worked rather well. Students were compelled to think critically about some concepts and had to seek out new information to answer the question being posed. That’s good, right?

Last semester, students were doing the same thing I expected them to do — they were looking up information and using this to write their lab reports. This is a thing I liked! and I still like! I even tweeted about it from lab!

Here’s the rub: students converged on the same wrong answers because they were feeding the same questions into google and not thinking critically about the answers they got. Does this mean that I should ban cell phones from the lab? Hell no! For me, it means two things:

  1. It has always been my job to teach information literacy, and this is a wake-up call that I need to pay closer attention. I must make sure that students are equipped to do inquiry properly, that expectations are clear, and that we are accountable to make sure that google is not used as an oracle.
  2. Because students will use their phones and laptops as a part of inquiry in the lab, I should be aware of what they will find, and design the lab to be more effective. I should be modifying the lab to be supportive of this inquiry and help students find useful information, rather than unwittingly provide prompts that lead students down rabbit holes of mistaken information.

Now that so much information is easily looked up (and that won’t be changing anytime soon, notwithstanding the arrival of a massive geomagnetic storm or some other catastrophe), we need to reconsider what belongs in the educational canon, what knowledge and skills our students need, and what can be looked up when necessary. Is it more important to memorize the Krebs cycle or spend time on deeper concepts about metabolic pathways? Should students memorize so many branching points in the tree of the history life, or instead learn bigger concepts about some of the branching points and how we build the trees? Should we still be teaching the construction of life tables in every ecology class?

When building curricula, I think it’s rather obvious to point out that our decisions should be structured by understanding that we all have rapid access to information. This is just one of the many things, I learned, we have to revisit every time we update our courses.

17 thoughts on “Updating pedagogy for the mobile phone era

  1. Are you familiar with the new ACRL Information Literacy Framework? http://www.ala.org/acrl/sites/ala.org.acrl/files/content/issues/infolit/Framework_ILHE.pdf

    Academic librarians have completely rethought Info Lit as a concept and how it is infused and imparted across the curricula. Your campus librarians are well versed in the Framework and could visit the lab and work in vivo with the students, so they can use their cellphone research skills for good and not dumbth (RIP Steve Allen).


  2. I would like an example of a question, a google query, an incorrect answer based on the query, and a correct answer. Yes, the Internet is a convenient source of all information and all disinformation. The problem is how to give students the skills needed to tell the difference. Is the problem with how the students framed the query? If so, they need to know how frame better queries. Is the problem that they are unable to select critically among the answers they get, many of which are (for reasons only known to Google’s search algorithms) identical?

    • Louis, here’s a remark on twitter with one example. I didn’t provide examples from my own course because it’s my own policy for my site that I don’t discuss student work in that level of detail, though I think it’s perfectly fine for commenters to provide information about their own teaching experiences!

      I don’t think it’s how the students framed the query, but rather the critical thinking that went into evaluating the results of the search.

  3. I’m in a completely different field (astronomy) and found cell phones to be a godsend for a class lab exercise. I have a (rather simplistic) lab in my course for nonscience students, a lab that compels them to make a set of observations of the Moon on the sky, something that most of them have never considered before. For a long time, outright data fabrication was a persistent problem, with students looking up the answer they believed they were supposed to get, and working backwards to create fake data that gave that result (and it’s rather obvious when they do this). When it dawned on me that everyone had phones, I established the requirement that they take and send me a picture of the Moon as they observed it, with the statement “even a selfie with the Moon is acceptable”. That simple added requirement, of something they are used to doing anyway, more or less completely abolished the data-fabrication problem.

  4. When you see a student use their phone calculator to divide by 10, you know that critical consideration has gone out of the window!

    • Helps to know that there are 10 kinds of people in this world: those who understand binary arithmetic, and those who don’t.

  5. I’ve run across problems with students using Google to find information when they blindly accept the first answer or (worse) the answer Google highlights without any further thought… a few examples from past student assignments come to mind: the first is the definition of “non-synchronous rotation” (the first search result is a freedictionary.com definition, but it has been redirected to the opposite “synchronous rotation”, which is not immediately clear unless you really think about the definition or note that the example given refers to “synchronous rotation”). The other two are more about reading the source and not just taking Google’s highlighted values – students looking for the distance between Mars and Venus (for a problem set) would choose the value highlighted by Google, which has come up as the aphelion distance of Mercury or the average distance between Venus and the Sun. The other one I run into occasionally is searching for events in the history of the Earth – Googling “when did RNA world happen” gets you the year the hypothesis was proposed, not where it fits in the timeline of early Earth!

    I’ve gotten rid of some of these issues by just putting all the values needed in my problem sets, which makes the results more uniform anyway (easier to grade). But the only thing I can think to do with the others is to show them how that internet search is misleading and that just blindly reading the top result might be wrong (even if from a reliable source). This last one is partly what worries me about using phones/tablets in class activities – if the students end up with the wrong info, are they sufficiently prepared to realize this, and if not, does it derail the rest of the assignment?

    And yes, we can always pre-test the searches to make sure the “non-synchronous rotation” redirect issue doesn’t come up, but that needs to be done for each semester as the search algorithms change.

    • Campus librarians teach students how to evaluate not only the information they’re finding, but also the sources of the information. You can bring your classes to the library for a tailored instruction session, or the librarian can come to your lab. You can also work with your librarians to build Information Literacy components into your assignments

      Either of these approaches should help alleviate the problem you describe.

      • I need to look into adding library visits in some of my intro courses – but the “non-synchronous rotation” example happened in a majors’ course with students who were graduating that term… I guess I assumed that by that point in their studies they would have been exposed to the kind of information literacy instruction you refer to. I wonder if they were just in a hurry to ‘fill out the study guide’ and didn’t bother to double-check sources thinking something as simple as a definition from a reliable site would be misleading. At least it gives me a good example to share with that class when I teach it in future semesters (and maybe an excuse to try open-book exams so to get away from the “fill out and memorize the study guide” mentality).

        • Many students graduate without ever interacting with a librarian or even setting foot in a library. I would often teach info lit sessions for graduate courses midway through the term, for profs who admitted in amazement and horror “I thought they learned this stuff in their undergrad…until I got their first papers back!”

          If you’re feeling proactive, work with your campus liaison librarian (if you have one for your discipline) to embed info lit assignments both in FYE courses and in the capstones.

    • Sort of reminds me of when I was teaching historical linguistics decades ago in a university in a South American country. I made the final exam open book. The students were flabbergasted; surely that would mean everyone would get 100. But the questions weren’t “when did French become a dominant source of new words in English” (answer would be ~1066, with the Norman invasion). Instead, it was “why” and “how” questions that tested the student’s understanding of the facts, like “Explain why English lost most of its case markers during the last millenium.” The textbook of course discussed this (else I couldn’t have expected the students to know), but they had to understand the textbook’s discussion in order to put it into their own words.

      Of course this meant grading short essay questions, rather than multiple choice or true/false…

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