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Mobile Tech in the Classroom: Tool or Toy?

Bartel and Fornsaglio at ConferenceIt probably doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone that faculty have noticed an increase in classroom distraction related to technology in recent years.  And yet, with that very same technology being used as a valuable teaching tool, how do you keep students on-task? Jeffrey Bartel, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology and Jamie Fornsaglio, Ph.D., associate professor of biology became so interested in this question that they worked together on four different research studies to try to answer it. 

“Basically, we’re looking for ways to help us help them focus,” according to Dr. Bartel. “Eventually we hope to use specific interventions to reduce distracted technology use that are based on the individual’s reason for using technology.”

“We both believe in using technology to teach,” says Dr. Fornsaglio. “However...even a best practice like the flipped classroom is ineffective if students don’t engage.”

(The flipped classroom is a teaching model that involves students studying a topic or lecture prior to a scheduled class. The class time is then opened up for discussion with the professor and classmates, or for hands-on learning guided by the professor.)

Two students - psychology and music major Emily R. Cygrymus and osteopathic medicine - biology and psychology major Alyssa Doyle, partnered with the professors on two of the projects. (Both students are also members of Seton Hill's Honors Program.) Taken together, the projects involved more than 250 students and faculty from over 39 schools. 

Here - greatly summarized - is what they were looking for, and what they found out.

  • Student Perceptions of, and Engagement in, Technology Distractions - In this study, Drs. Bartel and Fornsaglio aimed to extend current research regarding whether students’ perception of technology distraction is related to their own nonacademic technology use. Students surveyed reported being unlikely to be distracted by others’ technology usage in the classroom, no matter how often it occurred. Read the Study (PDF).
  • The Relative Influence of Faculty and Classroom Norms on College Students’ Distracted Technology Use -For this study, Drs. Bartel and Fornsaglio explored whether students looked more to their peers or to faculty when deciding to engage in nonacademic technology use. They discovered that peer use and lenient faculty technology policies both lead to nonacademic technology use among those surveyed and that faculty policies, in part, seemed to affect peer use. Read the Study (PDF).
  • FoMO Predicts Student Technology Distraction While Studying but Not in the Classroom - This project, led by student Emily Cygrymus, with Drs. Bartel and Fornsaglio and student Alyssa Doyle, investigated the relationship between a student’s fear of missing out (FoMO) on things happening in the world outside the classroom (or the study space) and nonacademic technology use. They discovered that students who were surveyed and were higher in FoMO were engaged in more technology distractions while studying, but this relationship did not hold for classroom technology use. Read the Study (PDF).
  • Relationships Among Faculty Policies, Technology Addiction, Nonacademic Technology Use and GPA Student Alyssa Doyle at Conference- This project, led by student Alyssa Doyle (shown here presenting her research), with Drs. Bartel and Fornsaglio and student Emily Cygrymus, examined the relationship among faculty policies, technology addiction, distracted technology use and overall GPA.  They found that stricter faculty policies against nonacademic technology use are associated with higher GPAs, and that, while cell phone addiction predicted off-task technology use of cell phones, internet addiction did not predict such use for laptops. Read the Study (PDF).

Turning Distractions into Teachable Moments

The fact that stricter faculty policies on appropriate technology use lead to fewer classroom distractions is an important research takeaway, according to both professors. It’s also something easy to implement - such policies could be as simple as asking students to put their cell phones out of sight in classes where they are not needed for academic purposes. 

Another important takeaway: “distractions” can be useful. Both professors have found entertaining ways to use the form and nature of popular distractions to communicate academic information. One great example is the presentation poster for their research study on “The Relative Influence of Faculty and Classroom Norms on College Students’ Distracted Technology Use.” It summarizes the study’s findings in the form of a text conversation (complete with meme). They presented this research together at the 41st Annual Meeting of The National Institute on the Teaching of Psychology - Dr. Bartel in person, Dr. Fornsaglio virtually via iPad (see photo above).  

Another example: Dr. Bartel told his students at the beginning of the semester that he needed them to read the course policies in the syllabus.  “Yes, it’s boring,” he told them. “But these are things you need to know.”  Included in the policies was one on professional use of email. A note instructed students to read the information and then send Dr. Bartel an email that breaks as many rules as possible. Result: Dr. Bartel was able to tell who’d read the policy, and everyone had some fun (and learned some things). Plus, students who discovered this Easter egg shared it with their friends (by social media and email, etc.) who then ended up reading the policy.

Student Research

Throughout all four studies, the professors strove to provide their student research partners with valuable experience. This included working with the professors on all phases of the research, from conception to data gathering and analysis to writing up the results and presenting the research at conferences.Student Emily Cygrymus at Conference

“Completing this research has improved my writing and analytical competencies,” says recent graduate Cygrymus (shown here presenting her research), who is taking advantage of a fellowship to attend the University of Maryland’s doctorate program in Counseling Psychology. “Getting the chance to present this research at the Eastern Psychological Association in New York helped me to realize just how many people we could reach with the study, and inspired many ideas for further research!”  

Next Steps: Collaboration, Metacognition & More

While Drs. Fornsaglio and Bartel work in different schools at Seton Hill (Natural and Health Sciences for her, Education and Applied Social Sciences for him), they served together on the Assessment Subcommittee of the University’s Academic Technology Committee. That’s where they both discovered a research interest in technology in the classroom, and decided to work together on research into the topic. Currently, they’re shepherding a new research proposal - on metacognition as it relates to students in STEM majors - through the National Science Foundation’s review process. 

With each faculty member relying on their academic strengths, their research projects have also been able to demonstrate the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration.

“That’s what the liberal arts is all about,” says Dr. Fornsaglio.

Dr. Bartel agrees. “It’s important for faculty to remember not to stay in our bubbles.”