Faculty Focus


Educating the Digital Native: Teaching Students in a Binge-Watching World

Students wear virtual reality technology in college classroom

No matter your specific discipline, teaching in the 21st century can often feel like you need an advanced degree in IT if you want to reach your students. After all, the majority of students are millennials or Generation Z, meaning most of them grew up with some form of technology in their hands. The theory that the best—really the only—way to get through to these digital natives is to speak their language, the language of tech, sounds plausible, but is it accurate? What is the best way to teach students in a binge-watching world?

It’s Not About the Tech

Whether you’re a veteran educator or you’re just getting your feet wet in the classroom, it can sometimes feel as though leaning heavily on tech in your teaching is the only option. There’s so much hype today surrounding the “technology-enhanced” classroom, anything less than a wholehearted leap onto the ed-tech bandwagon can seem like an abnegation of your responsibility to your students.

But that is the danger. As Samuel Buemi discusses, amid all this fervor over screens and apps and VR, it’s far too easy to get misdirected, inadvertently focusing more on the technology than on the student. Besides, as anyone who taught before the digital revolution fully took hold knows, technology is by no means the only way to build connections with your students or to do productive, even life-changing, work in your classroom. Sometimes, you can go further with a stack of index cards or a pair of dice than you can with the coolest, most state-of-the-art gadget.

It’s Never All or Nothing

Of course, taking a bit of a step back from all the fervor doesn’t mean renouncing tech altogether. You may very well have a student riot on your hands if you tried. However, it does mean using tech more conscientiously and more deliberately. It means embracing strategies and systems that truly do seem to provide a measurable advantage over more traditional methods.

For example, studies show that students learn more efficiently and retain information better if they develop some sort of emotional connection with the material. Technology can be immensely powerful in helping students achieve this emotional response, such as old-school film adaptations that can humanize Shakespeare for students struggling to connect with Elizabethan English. Or consider today’s innovations in virtual reality, that could, for instance, enable your class to “walk” together through the internal systems and structures of the human body.

The Greatness of Gamification

In addition to (strategically) using tech to help your students connect emotionally with challenging content, tech can also be a great way to make your classroom more interactive. In fact, this is probably the attribute that has received the most attention in recent years. While we certainly don’t subscribe to the hyperbolic claims of ed-tech as some sort of teaching panacea, there seems to be little doubt about the efficacy of gamification in learning.

There’s an old teaching aphorism that the student can’t really be said to have truly learned the content until they can use the material in some way. This is what gamification allows: students can use gamification technology to systematically master highly complex material, charting their progress through incrementally greater levels of difficulty. Students can be rewarded, both inside and outside of the game, for persevering through and ultimately overcoming learning content challenges at each gaming level. Best of all, the social nature, along with the surge of competition, can be particularly motivating for students, helping them to engage with material that was presented from a textbook page or classroom lecture.

The Takeaway

Teaching is one of the greatest, and one of the most difficult, professions there is. It is a calling of the heart. But to serve today’s students well, it is incumbent upon teachers to understand if, when, and how to incorporate technology into the classroom. While some measure of technology is not only beneficial, but necessary, for optimizing the education of today’s digital natives, it must be used with care, deliberation, and strategy if the reality is to live up to the promise.

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