Gabriel sat there with his arms crossed on the first day of class. A third-year undergraduate student, he had not enrolled in my Effective Learning course by choice. The course was mandatory for students on academic probation. Enrolling and passing the course were among the conditions students had to meet in order to be allowed to stay at the university for one more semester.
Every student had their own story and their own reasons for being on academic probation. While their stories were unique, they shared a common sense of resentment and distain at the idea of being forced to take a class on effective learning. My job was show them strategies and tools they could use to improve their success at university and ultimately, to help them get off probation.
Rather than starting with the idea that the students were somehow deficient and needed “fixing”, I used a strength-based approach to learning and study skills. I started with the assumption that they were all talented, smart and capable. We were going to uncover their strengths and then leverage them to help them succeed.
A rebel without a cell phone
Like his classmates, Gabriel did not particularly want to be there. Unlike his classmates, he was reluctant to explore the idea that he had strengths. He was quietly rebellious. He had hobbies outside school that inspired and energized him, but he could not make the mental connection between the skills he used in his hobbies and the skills he would need to succeed in school and in life. Though his outward appearance did not scream anarchy, it was clear that part of him rejected mainstream culture. He secretly enjoyed the idea of not being part of the status quo.
As part of his desire to express his individualism, he renounced technology. In fact, he started the semester by declaring, “I hate technology. I hate computers. I don’t own a cell phone. I don’t text. I barely check my e-mail. And I especially hate social media! We should learn with books and pens and pencils!”
Being the techno-geek that I am, his words were like fingernails down a chalkboard for me. I thought to myself, “Great. Just great… I have the only 19-year old Luddite on the entire university campus in my class.”
A strength-based approach to learning
I challenged him, but not on technology. I challenged him to re-examine himself and his skills not in terms of what he didn’t like or felt he was not good at, but rather in terms of his strengths. “So, tell me what you’re good at,” I said.
“What I’m good at?” He looked perplexed.
“Yes. You’ve just said that you’re not a fan of technology. So what are you a fan of? What are you good at?”
“Well…” He thought for a few seconds. “I’m good at public speaking. The art of rhetoric and oratory dates back to the Ancient Greeks. That, to me, education. The Greeks had it right. I think we need more face-to-face communication, not more technology. We need more contact with each other as human beings.”
Gabriel couldn’t help but turn his thinking back to what he didn’t like.
“OK, so forget about technology for a minute,” I said. “Tell me more about public speaking. What makes you good at it?”
He went on to talk about how he loved to stand in front of a crowd and give a speech. Gabe certainly did have “the gift of gab”. He could pontificate on any subject with no preparation. He rambled in a stream-of-consciousness manner and his speech craft needed work, but he was articulate and not at all nervous about speaking up.
I challenged him to explore the art and science of persuasive speaking and to refine his presentation skills. He seemed pleased that I had not pushed the technology issue. He agreed to explore the idea of deepening his public speaking skills.
Assignments using technology and social media: a pedagogical rationale
Throughout the semester, students had a number of assignments that involved technology including learning how to post to a class discussion board and an assignment that involved them using Twitter. This meant opening a social media account, learning how to post, use hashtags and interact with their peers in a meaningful manner.
Gabriel was not happy about these assignments. “Why do we have to use social media?” He growled. “It’s evil.”
“Hhhmm, I’m not sure evil is a word I’d use, but I get that you are not a fan of it. We are using it in a short assignment because learning how to interact effectively with others is an important skill that will serve you both inside and outside the classroom. When you are looking for a job after university, having a sense of what effective digital citizenship is may be helpful.”
He still didn’t like it, but since the assignment was required, he did it.
A strength-based approach to assessment – With digital and analog options
Instead of a final exam, I arranged for the students to do a strength-based assessment of their learning. Their learning portfolio was carefully explained and students were given a grading rubric so that they would clearly understand what constituted a highly successful – or not-so-successful – learning portfolio.
Students were given the option of choosing their own format for their portfolio. A traditional binder with pages inside divided into sections was one option. An e-portfolio was another option.
The archangel of surprises
To my amazement, only one student developed an e-portfolio: Gabriel.
While the other students were keen to use technology to text their friends or check in on Facebook, when it came to using technology for learning, they opted not to.
It was Gabriel who chose to develop his own website using Google sites, and add pages and entries to create a digital learning portfolio. He also used his digital camera to document the entire process of the creation and wrote reflective journal posts about the process of constructing his e-portfolio.
In his reflective online journal posts, he discussed the method he used to create his site, the process he went through to conceptualize what his e-portfolio should look like and how it should be organized and how he went about curating and including entries.
As a tech geek, it thrilled me to bits that my self-proclaimed technology hater was the only student in the class to choose the digital option for his final assignment.
As a teacher, what impressed me the most was the depth of his metacognitive and self-reflective process as a learner that he invested into the project. It was evident that he did not do it as a slap in the face or some kind of bizarre act of defiance. It was not a case of, “See? Any idiot can do tech!” Instead, he demonstrated a sincere willingness to step out of his comfort zone and try something new.
He engaged deeply with the assignment and used self-reflection and analytical thinking to drive his learning process.
I reflected for some time on why Gabriel may have chosen a digital option for his final assignment. While it was true that over the course of the semester we’d had some good conversations and he was doing much better in his studies, I was not convinced that alone was enough of a reason to make him to a technology-based project. He was not just using technology to consume information — searching web sites and reference articles on line, he was using technology to create something that was entirely his own.
I was so happy I wanted to cry, precisely because I knew that this was a really, really big deal for him. He was willing to go out on a limb and try something that three months earlier he had been dead-set against.
Here’s what I learned:
7 Tips to deal with a student who is resistant to technology
1. Allow critics the right to their opinion
This creates a mental and social space for dialogue to occur. Aristotle said, “It is the mark of an educated mind to entertain a thought without accepting it.” If you are a tech supporter, are you really ready to entertain the thought that technology is a turn off for some people?
2. Be an advocate, not an antagonist
If someone really, really hates technology then you saying, “You MUST do it this way!” does little to inspire them. Instead, try engaging the learner in an open dialogue about why they feel that the way they do. The point is not to try and change their mind (antagonistic), but to allow the other person to be heard, and ensure that you are heard, too (advocate).
3. Provide logical reasons for what you are doing
If you incorporate technology into your classes, be very clear about you are doing do. Do not go high tech simply because it is fashionable. Ensure there are sound pedagogical (or at least logical) reasons for doing so. Be able to articulate those reasons to your learners. Even if they do not agree, they are more likely to respect you as a professional for being able to explain why you are using technology in a particular way.
4. Focus on learners’ strengths
Just because a learner may not like technology does not mean that they lack talents, skills and abilities. If tech is not their strength, find out what is. Help them identify and cultivate what they are really, really good at. Make it about them and their learning journey, not about prescriptive course content or worse, about using technology simply because you say they have to. Students do not have to be “fixed” and they will not suddenly become complete and whole human beings as soon as we stuff them with the right knowledge. Start with the idea that they are strong, capably and perfectly OK they way they are. Build on what they are already good at.
5. Earn, then develop learners’ trust
When you help learners shine in a way that makes them feel comfortable and safe, they are more likely to trust you. When students trust you, they are more likely to allow themselves to be vulnerable when they are around you. When they allow themselves to be vulnerable, the are more likely to engage in new acivities or tasks in which they have lower levels of confidence or engagement.
6. Let learners adopt technology at their own pace
Not everyone is an innovator or an early adopter. That is not only OK, it is a scientifically proven phenomenon, as evidenced by Everett Rogers in his 1962 Diffusion of Innovation theory. People adopt new innovations at a variety of rates. Some people lag behind others. There is nothing wrong with that. Let them be a little reluctant. It’s who they are. Gentle guidance is more effective than pushy insistence.
7. Give learners options
Acknowledge that while technology is an important aspect of twenty-first century learning, it is not the only way. As human beings, we were perfectly capable of learning before the the personal computer was popularized in the 1980s. We can train our brain to be curious even if there is no technology around. We can also develop critical and analytical thinking skills without sitting in front of a computer. By giving learners options in terms of how high-tech they want to go, we keep the learning focussed on the student and their lifelong journey as learners.
Inspired insight: As an educator, I have biases too
Every now and then, a student with a completely different way of thinking and looking at the world may open themselves up to try something new. We lead by example when we as teachers, allow ourselves to look at the world differently, too — even when it makes us uncomfortable to do so.
While I remain a huge advocate of technology and a techno-geek, I also realize that this is a bias in my own personality and teaching. As teachers, we all have biases. I am openly biased in favour of using technology for learning. There are those who are biased against it.
There is value in recognizing and questioning our own biases as educators and as human beings. When it is helpful for our students, being able to set aside our biases and focus on what helps them learn in a way that makes sense for them is one of the most difficult — and most productive — skills we can learn as teachers.
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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.