Many semesters ago, even prior to the issues brought up in this post, I had one of my first encounters with the laptop and smart device as a tool for critical thinking and information literacy. In Composition II, we’d been talking in class about Connecticut’s brain drain subject and the thought occurred to me that we should be able to find relationships between levels of education in a population and measures of quality of life, such as median household income, the point being to show that if educated people left the state, quality of life would be affected negatively. Here’s the simple question: is there a relation between income and higher education? (It’s harder to measure whether higher education makes people nicer.) This issue is related to relatively new ecological inquiries into smart cities and future predictions about the role of cities in the United States. You can read more about this issue in this article by Richard Florida in The Atlantic.
In this discussion, I wanted to move away from guesswork and to an examination of statistics and I didn’t want to run to the teacher’s computer while the students sat passively waiting for my thinking to go somewhere. Rather, we put the laptops and the phones to work. Students set about looking for some method of examining the above question. After a few moments, a student found median household income at about 28K and reported percentages of higher degrees in Hartford, CT at about 12%, the source being the US Census. This was a good start but not enough to generate a solid hypothesis. The next question would require a search of other urban centers, such as Chicago and Boston, and then to examine those ratios. So the student set off seeking this information out. Several students suggested that, while the same measures showed higher returns than Hartford, these cities (and even towns surrounding Hartford) might not make for good comparison as Hartford is a fairly small urban environment and has a particular metro area. Question: to which cities, therefore, should we compare Hartford? The students set to work, even though this is a difficult question. More questions came: does the drift in population in an urban center tell us something about that area’s economic and cultural vibrancy? One way to search this is to examine whether over a hundred year period populations trends down or up? We went off on a search for this: guess what the answer points to?
The point of all this is that the students in the room, with their laptops and their phones, were seeking out the info, weighing the sources, and asking questions. I find this sort of wrestling with real problems a good method of generating engagement. It’s a routine now for me to ask students to have their devices ready and their laptops on, even if the occasional student decides that a game of this or that is better than the topic at hand. And if a student gets a call, they will quickly tell the thing to shut up.
It’s a good question: should information tools be incorporated into classroom discussion or should they be kept hidden? What are appropriate uses of communication tools, such as data-service phones and other hand-helds? One size doesn’t fit all contexts. But for me, devices have become an excellent addition to classroom learning ecologies.