In virtually any lecture on campus, you will see them — the sea of illuminated laptops. Their combined glow competes with the luminous slides on screen and the landmines of cellphones and recorders by the professor’s feet.

Technology has wedged its way into the world of academic, but the benefits of its presence are subject to dispute.

The typical student uses some form of technology for education. Whether it’s typing up notes on a laptop, forming virtual study groups, or using a smartphone to record a lecture, technological tools can be invaluable.

However, technology can be incessantly distracting; either through Facebook messages or a frustrating ringtone mid-exam, technology can also be a detriment to learning.

A growing formal presence

Formal inclusion of technological aids in a classroom setting has corresponded with a shift away from the traditional classroom setting and towards individual-based learning.

The new focus, in this case, is on self-directed learning, according to Professor Clare Brett, Associate Chair for Graduate Studies in the Department of Curriculum, Teaching, and Learning (CTL) at OISE.

“[Technology] allows people to have access to material in ways that they may not have been able to do before,” she says. “…It allows you to use all of that information at times when it’s useful to you, so you actually have much more direction over [how] you control your own learning.”

With educational tools like Blackboard, widely used by the university, students have an online reference to guide their academic experience. And with online instruction, the ability to choose when, where, and how learning takes place shifts the power into the students’ hands.

Senior lecturer Don Boyes in the Department of Geography and program in planning provides his students with a variety of learning options.

“I teach my classes using webinar software and a wireless microphone,” he says. “Students can decide to attend the lectures in-person or online, or opt to do neither and just watch the recording later.”

For Boyes, the benefits of providing these options to students are clear. He sees them as being particularly convenient for commuter students, making classes more accessible, and creating an opportunity for student to save time and money in the process.

This commitment to flexibility is the basis upon which Canada’s online universities were founded, including the Canadian Virtual University, which offers over 350 online degrees and certificates from 10 universities across the country. Institutions like these allow individuals who are unable to attend lectures in person to fully participate in the education system: all you need is an Internet connection.

Similarly, online courses offered by conventional universities are growing in popularity, as is accessibility-based learning in traditional institutions, including U of T. The university offers 18 entirely online courses in addition to a note-taking database facilitated through Accessibility Services4.

Online learning also provides universities with academic advantages that would not be viable in a traditional classroom. “The option of watching the recording means that [the students] can choose the time and place where they are ready and able to learn best, and watch them repeatedly if necessary to make sure they have taken all the notes they need,” Boyes says.

Technology also serves to make learning more engaging and interactive through options like video demonstrations, quizzes, and animation. Though often entertaining, these options provide outlets for different learning styles, creating an environment that better adapts to various educational preferences.

Drawbacks and distractions

One of the most evident drawbacks to educational technology is that, in courses offering online options, in-class attendance has dropped significantly.

Brett acknowledges this as one of the reasons behind instructors’ reluctance to use technology in their lessons.

“I think sometimes instructors are nervous about using technology because they think no one will come to their lectures… If students have this opportunity, then fewer of them turn up to class… They’ll stay at home, watch it online,” she says.

Declining classroom attendance can come as quite a surprise to instructors used to lecturing to a packed auditorium; this could be the reason why many professors choose to avoid the use of technology in classrooms altogether.

Boyes estimates that, for his courses with an online option, approximately a third to half of students come to class in person, and less than a quarter attend class live online (as opposed to listening to the recording later). Yet, he acknowledges that this isn’t necessarily bad.

“Many students are able to attend online or rely solely on the lecture recordings and still perform well in the course,” he says, adding, “Part of me loves to see a full classroom, but I think it’s more important to give students as many options as possible for learning.”

Integrating technology into learning poses another problem: you have to know how to use it. It is the responsibility of instructors to ensure they are using technology appropriately to elevate their teaching and it is the responsibility of the students to take advantage of the tools they have at their disposal.

“I don’t think [students] can [hinder] their education by using technology for educational purposes,” Brett says. However, distractions like Facebook, Instagram, and gaming still pose a threat to learning. Technology only enhances the possibility of distraction, and, if not used properly, it can make focusing on the material even more difficult for students.

With the rapid growth of technology enabling global communications, universities around the world are facing the challenge of competing with the digital world, which often offers cheaper, more accessible options for students. The Open University UK has stated it is concerned about the state of schools, predominately in the UK, which cannot keep up with the changing technological world.

A way to address this is to figure out how to integrate technology in a way that yields positive results. If the technology is not used appropriately, it can detract from learning.

“I always make sure I see real value in enhancing the learning experience, and not just using technology for its own sake,” Boyes says, adding, “[Students’] use of the technology should be as seamless as possible.”

Room to grow

Given the newness of technology, managing its use in academic settings is a burgeoning field.

According to Boyes, developments like “blended learning,” which consists of presenting course content both in person and online and using a “flipped classroom” — moving lectures online to allow class time for exercise and problems — are becoming trends in the educational world.

More subtle inclusions of technology are even more prevalent, including class-based Facebook groups, iClickers, discussion boards, and online surveys.

Brett argues that there will always be a place for traditional instructor-student interaction in spite of the growing presence of technology in universities.

“People always worry that they won’t need teachers anymore, that technology will take over teaching, and I don’t believe that,” she says.

Brett maintains that humans are social beings, and learn very well by interacting with one another, as well as in groups, adding, “I think it’ll be a long time, if ever, really, where you won’t want any kind of human teacher involved in the equation.”