Googling, tweeting and texting are an integral part of Professor Andres Caiaffa's classroom’s culture.
“As our student population changes, we need to change with them,” said Caiaffa, who teaches at Miami Dade College’s Benjamin Leon School of Nursing. “Everything around them is related to the use of the Internet, so I’m using to my advantage that they like to be connected, they like to be online.”
Caiaffa is not alone. An increasing number of educators in both college and grade school have built cellphones and social media into their curriculums.
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South Florida K-12 schools initiated a “Bring Your Own Device” policy in the fall of 2014, allowing students and staff to use their own technology during the school day “to enhance the learning experience.” Miami Dade College, Florida International University and the University of Miami also all have progressively seen a shift in professors encouraging their students to do the same.
“It brings me closer to my students,” Caiaffa said, whose students use Twitter to follow classroom lectures and text messaging to communicate one-on-one with him. “I encourage them to use the phone as a source of information, to find credible, reliable sources. By having access to it during class, they can find the right answer, right there, right in their hands. No excuse.”
Stewart Pulley, an aviation professor at the School of Aviation at Miami Dade College, has made Twitter engagement a requirement in his class. His students are required to post or “tweet” at him (on classroom material) once a week.
“Anecdotally, I have found that those that actually go on Twitter do better on the exams and in their final grades,” Pulley said. “I tie my exams to what I post on Twitter. If we have an exam coming up, I put up some questions that are on the test. I post material they need to know and expect them to interact.”
The use of cellphones as a teaching tool is spreading, despite continuing concerns that they post a distraction for unfocused students. A number of studies have shown students active on social media and cellphones during class tend to score lower than students not using them.
A new study by J.H. Kuznekoff, an assistant communication professor at Miami University in Ohio, found mixed results in how technology can impact student retention. It depends largely on how students use the phone — to discuss material being presented in class or where to go for pizza after class.
The study found that students who abstained from Twitter and text messaging received a 10 to 17 percent higher letter grade, scored 70 percent higher on retaining information, and scored 50 percent higher on note-taking than students who used the same technology to talk about nonclassroom content.
But in an important finding, students who used text and Twitter to actually talk about what’s going on in class do just as well as counterparts not using the phone.
“Instead of raising their hand, they tweet and respond to text messages from the professor,” said Kuznekoff, who conducted the study on 140 first-year college students at the University of Ohio.
He noted that students were quizzed and asked for classroom feedback via text messaging and Twitter, something teachers in South Florida have slowly incorporated. “It offers a different avenue for communicating with instructors.”
According to the study, 95 percent of 18 to 24-year-olds own a mobile phone and 97 percent of that population actively use text messaging. In addition, that age group sends or receives over 100 text messages per day or over 3,200 per month — which is double the same averages of those between the ages of 25 to 34.
But younger students aren’t that far off and are learning in similar ways.
More than a dozen teachers and professors interviewed in Miami-Dade and Broward counties agreed that cellphones play a major role in their classes.
"You’re doing them a disservice to them if you don't use them," said Eric Marshall, a sixth- and seventh-grade science teacher at Nautilus Middle School in Miami Beach. He has his students use their cellphones to create presentations and do research during class time.
"The ability and opportunity to look up and verify the information is second to none,’’ he said.
Lissette Burns, a language arts teacher at Nautilus, said she has found that the use of cellphones “empowers” her students in her classrooms, which she said has five computers for 20-plus students.
“They exude more confidence; you’re speaking to them in the language that they understand,” she said. “They like that they are allowed to learn the way they feel works best for them.”
Michael Levinson, a teacher at Western High School in Davie, however, says the challenge — a difficult one — is trying to control what kids do on their phones in class.
“Some teachers are known to let students use them in class for research, but the temptation to go on social media or take pictures (selfies) is overwhelming and many students cannot put their device down,” Levinson said. “I see many students virtually addicted to their smart phones, and this causes a major distraction.”
Alex Hernandez, a senior in political science at FIU, said he understands Levinson’s concerns.
"Citing myself as example, I use my smartphone to record the entire class lecture, and spend the majority of my time playing games on my laptop — unless I'm engaged by the material, in which case I'll give my professor a hard time and debate everyone tooth and nail.’’ he said. “Us political scientists think we know everything.”
“Final ruling: Get rid of the smartphones and tablets. Because in the real world, I won't always care if this is gonna be on the final exam. Netflix just released The Walking Dead, season 6, and FIU has free campus-wide WiFi."
While many educators acknowledge students are attached to their phones, they also argued that the majority of the time, using cellphones for classroom-related activity helps lures them away from texting their friends or logging on to Facebook or Instagram.
Lynn Mitchel, a fourth-grade teacher at Gator Run Elementary School in Weston, said it’s “certainly not distracting,” calling smartphones “necessary tools.”
“When you’re using it for academic purposes, it draws in the student to actually pay attention and want to use their phones for classroom lessons,” Mitchel said. who uses a website called Kahoot, which lets her make quizzes students respond to through their phones. “You’re changing the game.”
This article includes comments from the Public Insight Network, an online community of people who have agreed to share their opinions with the Miami Herald and WLRN. Become a source at MiamiHerald.com/insight.