(TNS) -- Izabela Uscinski's students hear an unusual message in their first-ever college writing classes: Open up your laptops, and let's all work together.
The University of Houston visiting assistant professor requires students to drop drafts of their papers in a shared Google folder, where they type notes on each other's writing styles and arguments for one another to see. Uscinski watches the conversation unfold, commenting on student feedback and giving pointers of her own.
It's a far cry from traditional peer editing techniques, when students swap papers and scribble notes in the margins. That method isn't effective, she said, because new college students don't yet know what helpful feedback looks like. What could be an useful exercise, then, wastes time.
Uscinski is one of several UH instructors experimenting with ways to integrate life in the classroom with life on the screen. Though plenty of tools like Google Docs are free, easily accessible and intuitive, professors nationally have been slow to mix them with course activities like lectures and group discussions, experts say.
"Just because the tools are there doesn't mean they're being used to their full potential," Uscinski said.
Decades have passed since college students and faculty first signed onto the internet, but opinions remain split on how to best use digital tools. Naysayers bar laptops from classrooms and lecture halls, stressing the distractions that come with the temptations of social media and online shopping. Cheerleaders of online courses say they can bring lessons from whip-smart faculty to students all over the country, advancing universities' educational missions.
Less discussed is how to mix online tools with in-person college classrooms. And some technology proponents say faculty need to do this effectively on a large scale to prepare students for life beyond college - and to make sure college stays relevant to a generation that has spent most of their lives on digital devices.
"If schools and universities don't integrate technology into what they do, where will students learn to do that?" said Scott McLeod, an educational leadership professor at the University of Colorado Denver. "I don't know if we can continue to pretend that we operate in analog environments and still prepare students for the digital world."
Uscinski said peer edits tend to be deeper and more reflective with Google Docs when students see a faculty member actively following along.
The 27 students in her course sections drop drafts of papers into a shared Google folder. They can access the online documents at the same time, commenting on phrases and each other's arguments at once. Each comment is tagged with the student's name.
"I think this is a really great example to have to support your argument, since it appeals to the emotions of the reader," one student wrote on a paper this semester.
Brianna Bechan, 19, is enrolled in one of Uscinski's writing classes, her first English course at UH. She didn't expect college classes to include peer editing, an exercise that "no one really took seriously" in high school.
But Bechan found that she learned from many of her peers' suggestions on her paper.
Jeffrey Morgan, UH's associate provost for educational innovation and technology, said conferences and summer sessions teach professors how to best use these tools in class.
"Sometimes faculty members get out in front of instructional designers," he said. "They're constantly, I think, searching for better ways."
Of her colleagues and their use of digital tools, Uscinski said, "nobody's doing it perfectly, but we should start by brainstorming."
Robert Ubell, vice dean emeritus of the NYU Tandon School of Engineering who has written a book about digital learning, said that while faculty members are increasingly comfortable bringing technology into the classroom, younger faculty often lead the charge.
But with universities relying on adjuncts over tenure-track professors, younger teachers who may be familiar with technology "aren't being put into positions of power," said Stephanie Hedge, an English professor at the University of Illinois Springfield who has researched teaching with technology. "That's one of the reasons we're not seeing a huge shift in higher ed. The people who are in positions of power tend to be the most conservative when it comes to technology."
Moving activities like note taking, peer editing and even office hours to a shared web space requires professors to consider exactly how these revamped processes help students, Morgan said.
UH professors host video conferences to discuss course topics and use online quizzes to immediately assess how students grasp the material, he said.
"You're always looking for a way to hone your craft and improve your teaching methods," Morgan said. "What you don't want to do is force them to use tools in the classroom that aren't going to help them."
Some UH professors aren't convinced.
Charles Jacobus, an adjunct professor at UH's Bauer College of Business, does not permit students to use laptops or cellphones in his real estate principles class. He banned the devices several years ago, he said, when he became aware of students ordering from L.L. Bean and responding to email. Others would focus on typing down every word and not think about the material.
"I'm not trying to create stenographers - I'm trying to create knowledgeable students," he said.
He concedes that laptops are necessary in classrooms for disciplines that require technological competency after graduation. And he uses a digital course management system called Blackboard to post announcements and the syllabus online.
Uscinski says she doesn't believe students in her smaller courses are distracted by laptops during class. "I don't believe that banning computers or phones is the right way to go about it because students need to learn to control the distractions on their own," she said.
Uscinski's colleague Jill Martiniuk moved into a shared office with Uscinski in the fall when she arrived at UH.
They got to talking about an exercise Martiniuk had tried in the past with students. She wanted them to create a shared database of research sources like web links and books that they could add to and reorganize over time.
Previously, Martiniuk's students made individual lists and put their ideas on a whiteboard.
But after learning about Uscinski's peer editing tool, she moved the conversation to Google Docs, a tool she uses to collaborate with colleagues. She decided it was about time she brought students on board, too.
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