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In Defence of Mobile Phones

April 14, 2012 1 comment

On the first day of class this semester, I got stunned looks from students when I said: “I know it can get confusing when different classes have different policies on mobile phones, but here’s mine: I do want you to use mobile phones in class.” Admittedly, I qualified this by saying that I didn’t want them to use them for taking phone calls (and in fact they would be severely penalised for doing so) nor did the fact that this was a course entitled “The Psychology and Philosophy of Games” mean that they could sit at the back of the class playing Angry Birds. But yes, I did want them using phones and other mobile devices. A smartphone is not just a telephone; it is a computer with a telephone tagged on to it. Android is basically a layer of Java over a Linux kernel, and if you want, you can even install a full GNU/Linux system, which gives you the most powerful operating system around just sitting there on your telephone. OK, most people don’t, because they don’t need to use their phones as web servers or to compile programs in C++, but just the existing tools in any smartphone – or even an averagely bright phone – are very powerful. Why reject them just because our classroom management is stuck in the last century? According to data collected by StudyBlue, smartphone users study for an extra 40 minutes a week on average – not a vast difference, but significant when we consider that phones are generally regarded as a distraction from studying rather than an aid to it. A likely explanation is that whatever time may be lost by phoning, texting and so forth is more than made up for by the fact that smartphone users can study anywhere, any time (for example, they were twice as likely to study between 6 and 8 a.m.). If phones are so useful outside the classroom, why are so many teachers opposed to their use inside?

“Ringing phones disturb the class.”

This objection is, of course, valid, but there is a simple solution: have your students set their phones to silent. Nowadays, you can even program a phone to be silent whenever you are in class, so forgetting is not a problem (and of course a student who forgets to put their phone on silent can also forget to turn it off). Occasionally a phone will go off by accident, but students are pretty good at shutting them off quickly (and apologetically), and let’s face it, that happens to teachers too. Once in a blue moon you will encounter the student who actually takes a phone call in class, but if you jump on them hard enough, no one else will.

“Students concentrate on their phone, not the lesson.”

This is sometimes true. Students will concentrate on almost anything other than the lesson: laptops, textbooks, doodles, the view out of the window, the pretty boy/girl sitting in front of them … in other words, they behave just like we do in meetings. Telephones are not a special case. The best antidote to wandering attention is to do something to get students’ attention, not to try to eliminate all sources of distraction. Nevertheless, there are times when I want students to really concentrate on something (e.g. a presentation by another student), at which point I just say “OK, no mobile devices” (which includes laptops and tablets).

“Students text each other in class.”

Well yes, but surely this is better than whispering or passing paper notes.

“Students use phones to cheat.”

This depends on what you mean by cheating. You may not want students to take phones into an exam (though one of my colleagues started doing this and found the impact on scores was minimal). In class, it is usually good that students use electronic dictionaries to look up words and the Internet to search for information. You just need to adjust your exercises to the wired world: for example, now a lot of my students have the course texts on their laptops, tablets and even phones, I have found that questions like “Find the following words in the text” are answered very quickly indeed; similarly, you don’t want to ask students to find a simple piece of information in a text when they can get it from Wikipedia more easily. But again, if there are times when you want students to read the text, the whole text and nothing but the text, then say “no mobile devices” for that exercise rather than banning them for the whole lesson.

For me, these two pictures say it all.

Why is this good ….Students with laptop

…but this bad?

Students with phone

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Categories: Classroom, Technology

Touching Lives

December 13, 2011 Leave a comment

As educators, we love the thought that from time to time we touch someone’s life. There are countless novels, films and TV episodes where that one special teacher made a difference to some student’s life, often propelling them from ghetto to boardroom. Well, I have my own, heart-warming story to tell.  A student came up to me after class and said “You know, this course has changed me. I’d never been interested in online games before, but because of what you said in class, last weekend I went to see my friend and he set me up with a World of Warcraft account.” See, I too have touched a life.

Categories: Classroom

The Menace of Mobile Devices … and Paper

October 19, 2011 1 comment

Students text each over on mobile phones. Students pass each other notes on pieces of paper.

Students use mobile phones to cheat in exams. Students use paper to cheat in exams.

Students play games on mobile devices in class. Students doodle on paper.

The clicking of keys on mobile devices is distracting. The rustle of paper is distracting.

There is not yet a mobile equivalent of the paper plane or a scrunched up ball of paper thrown at the back of someone’s head.

The solution is obvious: ban paper in class.

 

Categories: Classroom

Titles

October 14, 2011 Leave a comment

The difficulty undergraduate students experience in constructing  titles is matched by their enthusiasm for them. In my ENG 101 courses, I tell students not to attempt titles but simply to copy the essay question or task, but many cannot resist the urge to display their title-generating skills; thus instead of “Under what circumstances do online actions have the same moral significance as their offline counterparts?” I get “Right and Wrong”. Sparse and eye-catching, this might make a good title for a Restoration comedy (though even then it would probably have continued “OR The Virgine and the Foppe, A Comedie in Three Acts“). In ENG 102, they have to write a term paper, so there’s no question to copy, and they have to write their own titles, meaning that I have to do something to show them the difference between the title of an academic paper and the title of a novel. It was fine as a title for Stephen King, but an academic paper needs something a bit more informative. (There again, Mr. King wouldn’t have sold many copies if he’d had titles like “Morphogenesis of clown-spider hybrids: an ethnomethodological approach to American small-town hysteria.”)

What I did today was to present them with a list of titles for the kind of papers I might expect to see in this course (which is all about social networks and virtual worlds, by the way) and say whether they were good, bad or indifferent.

  1. My term paper
  2. Portrayal of oriental cultures in online games: a comparison of Guild Wars and Age of Conan
  3. The Matrix has you
  4. “Welcome to the desert of the real”: Baudrillardian themes in The Matrix
  5. Gender-switching in online role-playing games
  6. Effects of social networks on teenagers
  7. Sex as symbolic exchange in Second Life
  8. Celebrity tweeting and viral advertising: social media as self- and brand-promotion
  9. Why you should keep your kids away from online games
  10. The Matrix vs Inception

After a few false starts they got the idea. One thing that came out immediately is that students didn’t realise how long academic titles can be; quite a few students rejected number 2 because it was “too long – more like a sentence than a title.” This was a good opportunity to teach what I call “the academic colon,” which is not indigestion caused by Cambridge banquets but a convenient way of splitting a title into digestible chunks. Frequently, as in example 4, it’s a way to have your cake and eat it, combining the attention-grabbing style of a novel or magazine article title with the serious-sounding detail that tells a potential reader “There is citable content here.” As I told my students, the hard part of academic publishing isn’t getting your work published (that just requires the patience to go through the submission process with enough journals) but getting people to read it once it’s published. With essays submitted for courses, the problem isn’t getting someone to read it (they’re paid to do that); it’s getting them to come out of their grading stupor and really pay attention, but I didn’t add that part.

Categories: Classroom, Writing

Debate Rules

Over the past couple of years, I’ve started making formal debates part of my classroom practice. I say “formal” merely in the sense that (a) they have rules and (b) the positions chosen are arbitrary; in most other respects they are informal to the point of chaos. There are a couple of reasons for including formal debates among the usual speaking activities:

  • defending a point of view assigned randomly helps students to see both sides of an issue;
  • lack of personal identification with the point of view assigned lets students concentrate on language and argumentation (rather like the often absurd examples philosophers use in their thought experiments);
  • having rules prevents domination of the discussion by a few vocal students;
  • it is easier for the teacher to assess speaking compared to a free-for-all discussion.

The downside of most popular debate rules (e.g., British parliamentary) is that they have a set number of speakers, which means that unless you have a very small class, many students will be consigned to an observer role. Of course there are ways you can utilise this, but I was looking for was a system which allowed the good students to shine but at the same time made it likely that everyone would speak at least once. What I settled on started with Irish debate rules and evolved into the following format.

Each team picks three main speakers: first, second and final. In stage one, which is the most like a traditional formal debate, the first speaker for the motion (“proposer” in traditional terms) gives their speech, followed by the first speaker from the opposing team, the second speaker (“seconder”) from the first team and the second speaker from the second team. I generally give them each three minutes, but you can of course allow more time. The next stage is where we depart from the traditional debate model. For a set period (e.g. fifteen minutes), anyone other than the main speakers can ask a question to a member of the opposing team of their choice. You can then, if you want, allow one comment from each team (again, you may want to exclude the main speakers). Finally, the third speaker from each team sums up.  You’ll probably want to write the procedure on the board like this:

Debat eRules

I’ve found this works pretty well; in particular, the Q&A session keeps it lively and stops the debate being dominated by a few speaking stars. One important point, in an EAP context, is that students should have enough time to prepare – in a two-hour lesson, I usually allow around 45 minutes for the teams to prepare and then have the debate after the break. The subject of the debate should also be related to the texts students are reading at the time, and they should be encouraged to consult these texts in the preparatory period to find  evidence in support of their arguments. In this way, the debate helps students become more familiar with the issues in the course, rather than just being an isolated speaking exercise.

Categories: Classroom

Games in EAP

March 4, 2011 3 comments

Like many who came into EAP through the TEFL route, I was rather relieved when I finally started teaching in a proper faculty where students weren’t always saying “Teacher, can we play a game?” All those fun TEFL activities can get a bit wearing after a while. Then there are those who come into EAP through the Freshman Composition route, who are probably wondering why anyone would be playing games with (almost) grown adults. Either way, games are something we associate more with elementary language learning than with academic English. When I moved from our university’s preparatory school to help found the impressively-titled Faculty Academic Support Team (now FAE), I thought, “OK, no more realia, no more cutting up cardboard, and no more games.”

How wrong I was. The games started creeping back, partly because often you have to find something to fill the last ten minutes of a class, but mainly because I’m essentially a playful person. At the very least, I wanted to indulge in a word game or a trivia quiz from time to time. Then along came content-based instruction, and before long I found myself designing and teaching ENG 102: The Philosophy and Psychology of Games. Now you can’t very well teach a course like that and not play games, and as it happened, I was playing ring-a-ring-of-roses in the first lesson simply because Wittgenstein mentions it in the famous passage about games in Philosophical Investigations, and playing it was the easiest way to explain it. Later, when the weather improved, we ended up outside playing tag, stick-in-the-mud and the like. If you can do that in an EAP course, you can do anything.

Now I’m teaching this course for the third time, and I’m still trying to come up with ways to integrate games into the lessons, and, what interests me in particular, to make learning more game-like. I’ve been watching various videos at sites like TED.com (some of which came out of my students’ references pages for their term papers) and there is a clear message coming across: the more you can make education like game-playing, the more students will learn, and that goes for both syllabus content and general personal development. Games have certain features which facilitate learning as well as enjoyment, notably clear objectives (e.g. kill orcs), constant feedback (you have killed 8 out of 10 orcs), frequent but variable rewards (loot from dead orcs) and improved self-esteem (you are the orc-killer!). What I would really like is a situation where, as one gamer put it, “every time you learned something important, gold light shot out from your body,” but that won’t be practical until I make a lot more progress with our OpenSim server. In the mean time, what I can do is “gamify” some ordinary classroom activities, to provide, as Spike puts it in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “a little less ritual and a little more fun.”

To give an example, I have just concluded a series of six fifty-minute lessons based around one journal article (“Games Children Play“). Two of those involved a vocabulary “game” that was really just a bog-standard vocabulary exercise dressed up to look like a game – and because this was a course about games, I confessed this. I’d picked words out of the text (vocabulary used to comment on research) which would be used in a cloze exercise. So far, so dull. To provide an element of competition, I had the students do it in groups, awarding points for finding the correct word, and rather fewer points for words which weren’t in the text but still more-or-less fit in the sentence. At this point, we still do not have a game, though, since “games” which only involve competition (like most Olympic events) are not so much games as, well, competitions. What really made it a game was handing each team a set of playing cards: by surrendering a card, they could get a clue about the target word in the question corresponding to the card (since I only had ten questions, I missed out the court cards). It took a fair amount of tweaking the scoring system to get students to surrender a suitable number of cards (I settled on 6 points for the correct word, 3 for a possible word and 1 bonus point for each card left in their hands) but again, since we were talking about games, I could be explicit about this. The point is that in addition to straightforward task performance, you have an element of strategy (however basic) and risk-taking, and that is something which is often lacking in classrooms. Occasionally I toy with the idea that some students copy, turn up to class as late as they can without being marked absent or write entire term papers the day before the deadline just to provide an element of risk. Wouldn’t it be great if, as you handed your last assignment to the professor, you could say “OK, double or nothing”?

Anyway, I have to stop blogging and play Lord of the Rings Online do some work, so I’ll leave you with some of the videos I mentioned.

Categories: Classroom

I think, therefore I am not sure.

December 16, 2010 1 comment

I have often discouraged students from  using “I think …” or “In my opinion …” as a way of introducing their ideas. The problem is not the use of the first person, which is now accepted in academic writing by anyone born after 1900. The problem isn’t even with those specific phrases as such, since a quick browse through some academic journals will pull up plenty of cases. The problem is that students tend to use them to introduce their main arguments, and this does not look good. It might work in some other genres, such as reports (I’m not sure because I haven’t studied these genres) but in academic writing, as I tell my students, “I think …” generally means “I think, but I’m not sure,” and “In my opinion …” generally means “This is only my opinion.” I say “generally” because different writers may put their own slant on these words, and some disciplines are so speculative that “I think” may be the strongest you can manage. But normally we see these phrases used for points made in passing, rather than for the thesis of the paper.

What I’d forgotten until now was that this is not yet another example of the weirdness of academic writing; it’s actually the way these words are used in everyday conversation as well. I’d ignored  this because I’d been brainwashed by reading so many essays where students had concluded triumphantly “I think cannabis should be legalized” or “In my opinion, Composition classes should be abolished,” as though their use of these phrases strengthened their points rather than weakening them. Next time the issue comes up in class, though, instead of talking about the conventions of academic discourse, I’ll just ask “Would you say to your boy- or girlfriend ‘I think I love you,’ or ‘In my opinion, you’re hot’?”

Categories: Classroom, Writing