Devouring Digital: The New Participation

Personal tech in the classroom doesn’t have to be a distraction.

Peek in on just about any university-level lecture and you’ll notice a student audience armed with a variety of technologies. Laptops. iPhones. Tablets. Probably even a few wearables. These are the tools that today’s (and most certainly tomorrow’s) students were born into. They shape their identity. They power productivity, social lives, problem solving (see: Siri, Google), scheduling, collaboration, influence, prioritization and most intrinsically, communication. Texting is gouging away at phone conversations. Ideas, articles, photos and videos are shared on countless social networks. Related discussions, comments and amplifications happen in the same place. Amongst this demographic, digital communication is simply devouring its analog predecessors. And regardless of whether or not you like it, this trend is here to stay and it isn’t satiated yet by any means.

Imagine if we said, “Okay, you’re digital kids in the digital age, so we’re going to facilitate participation in a digital way that you know.”

This behavior is showing up in the college classroom, too. Seemingly every professor has a “they’re just not raising their hands to participate much anymore” story. The knee-jerk reaction to that experience is that it’s a bad thing: “Digital first,” social network-based communication amongst students is creeping into the academic setting and it’s minimizing critical parts of education, specifically engagement, discussion and participation. This sounds valid, but it’s a limited view. The truth is that this very behavior is simultaneously creating real, potential-filled opportunities around engagement, collaboration and yes, participation in the college classroom.

Photo by NordWood Themes on Unsplash

Just as smart coaches build schemes around the existing skills and talents of their star players instead of force-feeding their own, faculty should take a step back and acknowledge that today’s student prefers a different set of communication and collaboration tools.

Picture this scenario: After an anthropology lecture, the students spill out into the hallways and get on with their day. Browsing Twitter on their phone, they click through to a blog post that reminds them of a point made in class. They question that point. They wonder what the rest of the class (and the professor) might think of it. That right there is the new class participation moment. Call it digital, call it social, but at its core, that moment hits the proverbial bullseye of engagement and participation.

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