When the topic of iPads and computers in the classroom is raised, the mind immediately wanders to all of the distractions technology can pose. After all, it can be tough to resist a quick check-in on social media, or a scan through email.

John Zinn, however, took another approach. The School of Professional and Continuing Studies professor received a grant to lend an iPad to every student in his classes, which they use for collecting surveys in the community, analyzing data, and even reading for class.

At the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Technology’s UR TechVision 2015 conference, he’ll talk to other University faculty about how to approach technology in the classroom thoughtfully and purposefully. Here, he answers a few questions about his own learning experience.

When did you start incorporating iPads in the classroom?
I went to Disney in 2011 and noticed that cast members with iPads were around the park conducting surveys. When guests would get off a ride, they would ask three or four questions and beam the feedback to some central location. I thought that was fascinating. So when I learned that the University had purchased a batch of iPads to be used in the classroom, I decided to submit a proposal. The first class was an economics class.

How do you use them as a tool?
For the economics class, it was a hook to understand the importance of economic literacy. My students used the test of economic literacy, which has been around since the mid-80s. The test is a 46-question battery that tries to determine the level of economic literacy a high school student should have. They combined that questionnaire with some demographics and other questions, and went out in the community to conduct surveys, collect data, and tabulate the results.

The survey gets them to ask questions of their friends and family and it spurs conversations. One of the things that I try to hammer home in my classes is that we tend to hear what people are saying on the news or what politicians are saying, and that may not always be correct. You need to fact-find and do some digging. The surveys help them understand how data is collected and analyzed. It gives them a chance to compare the results to national polls and see what might make sense and where there might be some differences and try to tease out what that might mean.

How do the iPads add to the experience, versus paper surveys or researching existing data?
The big challenge is to not use technology for the sake of using it because its flashy. It needs to elevate the curriculum or the lessons to the next level. In my classes, it facilitates data collection. It adds a layer of security, because the students don’t have access to the responses. If they’d handed you a paper survey, when you handed it back, they could look right down and see what you had said right then or 10 minutes later.

It’s also portable. When I teach classes with the iPad, all of the books and readings are electronic so they’re basically carrying the course around.

How will you encourage other faculty at the conference to see technology as valuable and not a distraction?
I think a lot of faculty all over see technology as a distraction, because of course students can access Facebook or Twitter or Snapchat or whatever else might come along. I frontload expectations and say that this a tool to take them to the next level in their learning and research. I always tell the students, I’m not going to be on Facebook for the next 90 minutes, and I don’t want you to be. If it looks like they’re doing something other than the task, I’ll throw a question their way and ask them to look this up and try to draw them back in. So it’s more classroom management.

With each class you’ve taught, how have you learned how to use technology more effectively?
Learning and anticipating the pitfalls. In SPCS, our students are nontraditional. They might be 18, 19, or 20, or they might be 65 or 70. Their willingness to use technology or their comfort level can be really good or really bad, so I have to anticipate their needs and bring them up to speed.

There are also challenges any time you’re using technology. The battery is dead when you’re going out to get your results or collect data. Or you forgot to download the data. You forget to log into Wi-Fi and it may interrupt what you’re trying to do. But if you’re doing paper surveys, the rain might mess up the results. It’s just a matter of deciding to do it and being willing to make some mistakes and to move forward.