On Technology and Learning

From our seventh floor campus offices, we can visually track the slower pace of summer morphing into the bustle of back-to-school. One day the campus is sleepy. The next, the perimeter of the campus fills with mini-vans and out pour freshmen, their families, and dorm supplies to last a year. In a matter of hours, the quad transitions to a buzzing hub of people, bikes, Frisbees, and a hammock or two.  


In the past decade, the way students physically navigate the campus quad has changed dramatically. Whereas 10 years ago a handful of students might have walked distractedly with their noses in books, now the vast majority traverse the walkways with phones in hand, often reading/texting/posting as they go. This year the hunt for Pokémon has taken distraction to new heights. Being perpetually plugged in is not unique to postsecondary students, Common Sense media estimates that average daily media use hovers between 6 hours and 9 hours for teenagers. Given the perpetually plugged-in nature of youth, what role does technology play in the way they experience their education inside and outside of the classroom? 


In 2014, John Hopkins University Press published Postsecondary Play, a book we edited with Tracy Fullerton and Gisele Ragusa. This year, the book will be released in paperback. The chapters address the changing role of technology on college campuses and discuss implications for learning.  In chapter six, for example, Henry Jenkins and Adam Kahn write about how to assess student learning in a wired classroom. With an "open laptop" exam, students can now communicate with other classmates during an assessment – as opposed to an open book exam where students used to prepare materials in advance but took their test in isolation. As a consequence, professors are challenged to develop assessments that respond to a new, networked way of learning. Other chapters focus on disruptive technologies, passionate affinity spaces, and playful approaches to learning in postsecondary environments.


Perhaps the most provocative chapter of the text is Steven Weiland's concluding piece entitled, "How much technology is enough?" Weiland problematizes the rapid pace of reform by technology and posits the value of deep reflection about cognitive development and the best ways to incorporate (or push back on) technology.


As we gear up for the semester and grapple with how much technology to incorporate into our own classes, we have appreciated revisiting the chapters of Postsecondary Play. The book also has factored into our current research on the effects of game-based technologies on college access. We see great potential in the engaging and scalable nature of online tools. Yet emerging analyses of data collected in 30 California low-income high schools most closely resonate with Weiland's cautionary approach. We are finding that deep technology divides still exist – and that in many cases, a non-digital approach (i.e. face-to-face interactions with a qualified college counselor) augments the effects of digital interventions.


As we head into the 2016-2017 school year, we wish you safe quad crossings and meaningful reflection on digital technologies.


Zoë B. Corwin is director of Collegeology, a game designed to teach underserved students how to navigate college admissions at the Pullias Center for Higher Education Policy and Analysis at USC. William G. Tierney is the Wilbur Kieffer Professor of Higher Education and the co-director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California. He is the coeditor, along with Zoë B. Corwin of Postsecondary Play: The Role of Games and Social Media in Higher Education. His latest book is Rethinking Education and Poverty.

The start of a new school year is upon us, and our authors have taken to the blog to discuss the past, present, and future of the education landscape in the United States and abroad. From administrative imperatives, to advice for parents, to student mental wellness, our authors will examine education from every angle. Check back with us for more from our JHU Press back-to-school series.