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I was delighted to hear from my brother-in-law, Mark Knapp, on this subject. Mark, recently retired professor of communication from the University of Texas, is one of those “great teachers” who come along, if you’re lucky, maybe once in your college career. They are leaders in their field who also have a God-given talent for teaching. The problem is, of course, that talent is a rare commodity. Students flocked to Mark’s classes and he taught many of them in large lecture halls holding hundreds of students. Here’s what he has to say about the problem of students being distracted by their electronic gadgets in these large classes:

I think we’re headed for a time when the student’s hand-held technology will become part of the educational experience. It has already started on a limited scale. Before I left the classroom there was a system whereby instructors could survey the class during the lecture with questions related to class content and the clicks made by students would immediately show up on a big screen that everyone could see. This helps the instructor know the best way to proceed in his or her lecture and gives students an idea of how their opinion stacks up with hundreds of their peers. Eventually cell phones will have more sophisticated apps that are relevant to the classroom experience, making it harder to text or do Facebook when the phone is a part of the class. In other words, instead of banning phones or getting upset about how students are using them, if we are smart, we will turn the technology into something focused on the educational experience. I don’t think legislatures are going to suddenly give higher education more money, and hand-held technology will not go away, so large lectures with hundreds of students who have cell phones will continue. Therefore, adapting the technology to the classroom seems to make the most sense.

Brilliant! I had simply not thought of this. But of course it does make perfect sense. And I can see so many advantages. In addition to helping the instructor to adapt his or her presentation as he or she proceeds, it would provide for immediate, ongoing evaluation. Pop Quiz! Answer these Questions on what’s been presented so far. Students see immediately how they’re doing in picking up the concepts. And the instructor sees how he (or she) is doing in getting the message across. If nobody “gets it,” either the kids are not listening or you didn’t explain it very well. In either case you need to backtrack and see if you can get it across more powerfully or more cogently. As Mark says, “If we are smart” (ay–there’s the rub) “we will turn the technology into something focused on the educational experience.”