Devouring Digital: The New Participation

Personal tech in the classroom doesn’t have to be a distraction.

GUEST COLUMN | by Shaunak Roy

CREDIT YellowdigPeek in on just about any university-level lecture and you’ll notice a student audience armed with a variety of technologies. Laptops. iPhones. Tablets. Probably even a few wearables. These are the tools that today’s (and most certainly tomorrow’s) students were born into. They shape their identity. They power productivity, social lives, problem solving (see: Siri, Google), scheduling, collaboration, influence, prioritization and most intrinsically, communication. Texting is gouging away at phone conversations. Ideas, articles, photos and videos are shared on countless social networks. Related discussions, comments and amplifications happen in the same place. Amongst this demographic, digital communication is simply devouring its analog predecessors. And regardless of whether or not you like it, this trend is here to stay and it isn’t satiated yet by any means.

Imagine if we said, “Okay, you’re digital kids in the digital age, so we’re going to facilitate participation in a digital way that you know.”

This behavior is showing up in the college classroom, too. Seemingly every professor has a “they’re just not raising their hands to participate much anymore” story. The knee-jerk reaction to that experience is that it’s a bad thing: “Digital first,” social network-based communication amongst students is creeping into the academic setting and it’s minimizing critical parts of education, specifically engagement, discussion and participation. This sounds valid, but it’s a limited view. The truth is that this very behavior is simultaneously creating real, potential-filled opportunities around engagement, collaboration and yes, participation in the college classroom.

Just as smart coaches build schemes around the existing skills and talents of their star players instead of force-feeding their own (which likely won’t fit well and thus may fail), faculty should take a step back and acknowledge that today’s student prefers a different set of communication and collaboration tools. You wouldn’t throw an iPad at yesterday’s student and say, “Go forth! Use this magical machine to discuss the course material!” Nor would you force an antiquated (and perhaps less preferred) mode upon today’s student. Neither will find real success, just frustration—which leads to disengagement.

We need to stop comparing which tools are better because frankly it’s a moot point. It’s the student that’s different now. Once this fact is recognized, the perspective can change. Instead of bemoaning why this difference is bad, progressive administrators and faculty should focus on the massive opportunity that resides in collaborative digital communication that can supplement the in-class experience.

So what exactly is that opportunity? In simplest terms, it’s the new participation. Over the last five to 10 years, particularly as social platforms like Facebook and Twitter have ascended, a small number of brave academics have recognized the impact digital tools can have on engagement and participation. They’ve implemented message boards or attempted to use an existing tool that, while perhaps not built specifically for an educational use, might be good enough to achieve some sort of moderate success. The results of these efforts have been admittedly modest, but they’re on the right track.

Now imagine if the tools were no longer the hindrance to participation. Imagine if we said, “Okay, you’re digital kids in the digital age, so we’re going to facilitate participation in a digital way that you know.” We see how conversation builds exponentially upon itself on the social platforms students are familiar with (i.e., Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.), so why not facilitate that behavior in an environment designed specifically for education?

Picture this scenario: After an anthropology lecture, the students spill out into the hallways and get on with their day. Browsing Twitter on their phone, they click through to a blog post that reminds them of a point made in class. They question that point. They wonder what the rest of the class (and the professor) might think of it. That right there is the new class participation moment. Call it digital, call it social, but at its core, that moment hits the proverbial bullseye of engagement and participation.

What’s more, embracing a digital participation model allows for measurement. Instead of trying to remember how often a student raised his or her hand in class throughout the whole semester, instructors could quantify digital activity.

For those picturing a flatlining of in-classroom participation, fear not. Participation powered by technology is a circuitous loop that comes back to the classroom. Everything happening online, after a class fuels the next one. So that blog post our anthro student came across on Twitter becomes part of tomorrow’s class discussion. That sort of supplemental education has limitless potential.

Digital collaborative platforms hold immense promise when it comes to extending and enriching higher education. They are going to be second nature to today’s students who had an iPhone before they could drive and were raised on Facebook and Snapchat. They are going to unleash a whole new mode of participation and engagement. And the institutions that recognize and embrace this shift will generate a deeper, more immersive educational experience.

Shaunak Roy is the CEO of Yellowdig, a social collaboration platform currently used by more than 30 institutions including The University of Pennsylvania, The University of Virginia, and Duke University. Learn more at

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