Digital technologies in tutorials: to BYOD or not to BYOD?

6776957388_4e172ce324_zUniversities across the UK – and indeed, across the world – have witnessed a trend towards ‘Bring Your Own Device’ (BYOD). Indeed, in many institutions it’s expected that most students will not only have access to their own devices (laptops, tablets and smartphones), but will also use them in the lecture theatre, whether to take notes or to engage with complementary learning resources online. But what about the more intimate setting of the Oxford tutorial? What, if any, is the place of digital technology where the focus is on the dialogue conducted between tutor and student in cosy armchairs over a pot of tea?

This was one of the topics which we explored with students and staff in the DIGE 2 project last year. The nub of the issue is the close dialogue between tutor and student(s) around the essay, a dialogue which some felt may be vulnerable to disruption if digital technologies are introduced:

The purpose of a tutorial is one-to-one engagement. … For me, to have technology in something that is so highly personal and communicative, as I feel teaching is, I think it depersonalises it and it makes it awkward sometimes (humanities tutor 1).

…in tutorials you have two people, you can pass a book between them. Tutorials are quite nice because education is constantly becoming more and more abstract, like you can take online courses. To get one-to-one attention like that is really valuable. Almost if we were to use digital technologies there I would feel a bit fobbed off (humanities undergraduate 1).

Academics’ views

In response to a survey question about their attitudes to BYOD in tutorials and seminars, 71% of the 45 academics who responded said they are willing for students to use their mobile devices, 24% said that they build activities into the class involving students’ own devices, and 18% took the extreme position of not allowing students to use their devices. These three basic attitudes were fleshed out in the interview data, which reveal varied positions.

Some tutors accept that students like to take notes on their devices, others do not; some are happy for students to look up references and resources on their devices, others are not. One survey respondent feared that, if students go online to look up something that they do not understand, then the tutor will remain unaware of their difficulty.

Another interviewee felt that looking up resources on an ad hoc basis might spill over into checking one’s email; there is a fine line between value and distraction:

Maybe to find something out, to find empirical information, things that they look up in the tutorial, which I encourage because research is finding information you don’t know. But of course it’s a very swift … step between relevant knowledge and data to irrelevant knowledge and data. … If their tutorial partner is reading through his essay for instance, which can be a valuable teaching exercise if used responsibly, there is nothing to stop the other student from going through their email rather than writing notes on their partner’s essay (humanities tutor 2).

tablet_deviceOne way to tackle the distraction problem is to co-opt students’ devices into one’s teaching: ‘If you accept the reality that they will use their devices, then harness it’ (social sciences tutor 1). Another suggested solution was for staff and students to negotiate a ‘learning contract’ defining the acceptable and unacceptable uses of BYOD.

Only one of the academics we interviewed said that they prohibit BYOD outright. Another said that he would like to ban it, but is prevented by his college culture: ‘Other tutors allow it so if I don’t I will be seen as an anomaly’ (humanities tutor 3).

A laissez-faire attitude was also discernible in the data, some interviewees voicing the opinion ‘It’s the students’ job to make sure they learn’ (sciences tutor). It was also felt that banning BYOD might be detrimental to class morale.

A number of staff interviewees recognised that use of the tutor’s computer can enrich the dialogue in a tutorial; for example, showing a resource or programs on one’s own computer, perhaps using a large screen so that the students can easily see it. One humanities tutor went as far as likening a Google search to browsing his bookshelves:

I also will use Google during tutorials … This is another way of doing research in the tutorial, which is actually not dissimilar from how tutorials have been conducted for generations. Which is that the tutor stands up, wonders over to his bookshelf, picks up the relevant book and opens it up to a page and gives the students the reference.

Students’ views

Tutorial hi resSeveral student interviewees considered it either inappropriate or unnecessary to bring a laptop into an intimate setting where meaningful academic discussion is at the centre of the learning; for example: ‘It would feel rude/inappropriate looking at a screen … it seems more personable to be without’ (humanities undergraduate 2).

Other students alluded to the threat to the all-important tutorial dialogue from students who hide behind their laptop or busy themselves with looking things up or paging through their notes. In contrast, one undergraduate interviewee who was studying subjects in the humanities and social sciences asserted her right to BYOD: ‘I have got more confident about saying [to tutors] that actually I really don’t like taking notes on paper [so] I’m going to bring my laptop anyway.’

And the verdict is…

The diversity of views uncovered by our research is unsurprising, but may be bewildering to the tutor in search of guidance on how to tackle the issue of BYOD. The view that tutors should acknowledge the reality of BYOD by ‘designing’ activities involving students’ devices into tutorials is one way forward, but equally they should be able to set bounds and to tell students when to shut the lids of their laptops or put away their tablets.

Like a number of our other findings about the downsides of technology in students’ learning, the issue of students checking their emails instead of attending to their partners’ essays is a symptom not of the intrinsic properties of the devices (which are, arguably, neutral in themselves), but of shortcomings in students’ study skills. Indeed, one of the key overall findings of the DIGE 2 projects is that issues and exceptions identified in students’ digital behaviour may be amplifications of pre-existing behaviours. Some of these have an underlying cause elsewhere; for example, in the conceptualisation of learning which they develop at school or an incomplete understanding of their learning needs. The project has recommended the development of an online course to support all students in managing their learning, perhaps co-designed with students who have adopted successful study strategies.

Readers with an Oxford single sign-on can download a copy of the DIGE 2 research report from WebLearn.

Image credits:
  Top: CC BY AJ Leon via Flickr
  Middle: CC BY-SA NYC Media Lab via Flickr
Bottom: CC BY-NC-SA University of Oxford

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