Tag Archives: technology

“This Will Revolutionize Education” –A Story That Needs To Be Told Again and Again

I needed to write a post yesterday morning. I had on my desk a few ideas from articles I had cut out of newspapers, suggestions that friends and family had sent to me, and pieces  from a chapter on donors that I had drafted and wanted to try out on my blog.

Before I decided which of these items I would expand into a post, I checked my website to see how many views I had overnight, what comments had come in and whether they needed responses from me, and, of course, dumping the spam that had collected overnight. I also checked to see who had clicked onto the site for that is a way I find out who is reading posts and a chance for me to pick up different ideas. And that is how I found today’s post. One reader had downloaded my monthly cartoon feature on technology for kids and adults to her website and also gave a link to a video called “This Will Rev0lutionize Education.” That caught my eye. I watched it. And I was startled by its accuracy, brevity, and elan in taking apart that common phrase used time and again by wannabe school reformers eager to put the next new technology into classrooms.

As a historian of school reform, I have written more than I want to remember about those rose-colored, feverish, high-tech dreams that appear time and again promising to transform classroom practice and how students learn. This video is seven minutes long and it vividly captures the hollowness of each generation’s claim that “This Will Revolutionize Education.” But far more important the video zeroes in on the centrality of the teacher to student learning beyond conveying information which new technologies are superb in doing.

At a time when blended learning, flipped classrooms, MOOCs, and, “disruptive” innovations pop up incessantly in media and rhetoric of school reform, what Derek Muller presents is worth seeing. So I now present the YouTube video: “This Will Revolutionize Education:”

Click on: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GEmuEWjHr5c

 

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Filed under Reforming schools, technology use

More Cartoons on Kids, Adults, and Technology

After nearly two years of once-monthly cartoons, readers and friends (and, yes, even family) send me their favorites. The eternal struggle of adjusting to each new technology gives cartoonists much to chew on. And they do as this month’s collection shows.

For all my U.S. viewers, chuckle, laugh, shake your head at these renderings about technology–particularly about smart phones–and, most of all, have a most happy Thanksgiving. For my international viewers, well, simply enjoy the cartoons.

 

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'We     ... In class today.'

 

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Nature+Deficit+Disorder+Cartoon

kids and high tech pen

 

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Software Will Not ‘Eat’ Education (Ben Stern)

Ben Stern is “the Manager of Education Partnerships at TeachBoost and an advisor to Ponder. Formerly a history teacher and technology integrator….” This appeared in EdSurge September 11, 2014.

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Marc Andreessen, with the support of long-time colleague and amateur rapper Ben Horowitz, famously leads Andreessen Horowitz with the thesis that software will “eat the world.” Naturally, I wonder whether it will “eat” education.

Most recently, Andreessen and Horowitz suggest healthcare, education, and government are poised to be eaten. They may be right about healthcare. Government, they admit, is a longer way off. Education may be more imminent. Andreessen explains,

Technology is not driving down costs in…education, but it should…[Access is] the critical thing. We need to get every kid on the planet access to what we consider today to be a top Ivy League education. The only way to do that is to apply technology.

Ostensibly supporting this thesis is the growing edtech industry, in which I work. $452 million of VC money in 2013 is no small potatoes. Andreessen and Horowitz must be on to something, right?
No – at least, not as they frame the issue.

The biggest problem in education is not, and never will be, that too few students have access to Harvard. Let’s ignore for a moment the discussion about the value of an Ivy League education. Instead, consider the myopia of this view of education. K-12, as opposed to higher ed, is more relevant to the vast majority of Americans. Rightfully, getting every kid into Harvard is far from the top concern of anyone involved in this space, whether as a student, parent, educator, policy-maker, or entrepreneur. Let’s get every kid into and through high school first.

The many issues in K-12 –the achievement gap, funding disparities, and teacher attrition rates, to name just a few –are not issues that can be resolved by instant access. In fact, they are not software problems. They are human issues, political issues. Software alone will not change ,  much less save ,  the world of education.

Software can help, under three conditions:

  1. Edtech should be designed to focus on a narrow set of problems. The complexity of the American education system can be frustrating for companies, but it exists for a reason: educating 77 million students isn’t simple. Certain parts of it must exist to manage so many people. Companies aiming to
    1. overhaul education with their product are DOA. Instead, they should be targeting inefficiencies in the system. Companies ought to recognize that there are certain confines within which they must operate.
    2. Related, edtech companies ought to make sure the problem they solve is a real problem, not a mere annoyance. Often, great edtech software never gets adopted because it’s solving a problem that doesn’t yet exist, or won’t exist until 20 years of innovation have transpired. Companies that believe that their software will help to usher in a whole new educational model, who will truly disrupt or “eat” education, probably won’t. Iterative –not radical – change is itself ambitious in education, an industry in which the most successful companies thus far reinforce the status quo.
    3. To focus on the right problem, companies must assume a purely Socratic approach  :  know that they “know nothing,” and be inquisitive, open-minded, and responsive . By asking rather than answering questions, companies can deliver software that helps humans improve teaching and learning.

    Using good software, humans begin to chip away at the big issues of the day: software might free up time to focus on the issues, surface data that elucidates the issue, and empower teachers and learners to grow in new ways But humans do the important work. Software must strike a delicate balance between innovating and meeting current, non-technological needs–a balance that’s harder to strike in education than anywhere else. But who said startups should be easy?

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MOOCs Carve Out a Narrow Niche in Higher Education: A Familiar Story for K-12 Use of Educational Technology

So many hopes, so many promises, so many disappointments about MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) in the past three years.

Hopes for expanding enrollments to anyone in the world with an Internet connection and downsizing tuition costs have shrunk.  Consider that the average MOOC student is not the hoped-for rural Indian villager but a white American, 20-something male with a college degree. While there is much talk about $10,000 bachelor degrees from online courses, only one university thus far has offered such a degree.

Yet after shrink-wrapped hopes have been put away and with disappointing outcomes including high dropout rates (over 80 percent) and many students failing MOOCs when they replace traditional college courses (25 to 50 percent), MOOCs are still around. They have found a niche as online courses for self-starting students inside and outside the university.

As one recent article put it, MOOCs are slowly becoming institutionalized in higher education as offerings to highly motivated students from small business entrepreneurs to seasoned graduate students. For many adults, MOOCs have become “just-in-time” education fitting busy schedules where chunks of knowledge and skills can be acquired.

Take Leo Cochrane, who already has a bachelor’s degree but took a free online class from the University of Virginia Darden School of Business to help expand his start-up air-purifying business. The course was perfect for the time-pressed entrepreneur. He had little inclination or money to follow a path that would take him to a traditional campus or even to an old-fashioned online course, with its rigid deadlines for lectures and completing assignments. With a MOOC, he could watch video lectures on his iPhone while running on a treadmill and pick and choose what he needed to learn from the syllabus. MOOCs put students in control. Students can do as much or as little as they want at any time, one reason that many never complete the courses. Roughly one in 10 finishes.

From universities to community colleges, MOOCs are now finding a small niche in higher education by offering access to knowledge much like adult education did a few generations ago.

In just three years MOOCs, a star-burst of hope for higher education to be extended to everyone in the world at knocked-down prices or even free, has settled into a familiar within a university’s portfolio of choices available to part-time and full-time students.

The journey of this falling star is familiar to anyone aware of the history of technological innovations. Consider the road traveled by teachers and students from the earliest desktop computers in the 1980s to tablets and smartphones now. From an average of over 125 public school students per desktop computer in 1983 to 3:1 (2008) to even a lower ratio in the past few years, devices dot exurban, rural, suburban, and city schools with nearly universal wireless connections making the Internet accessible at a click. Cell phones are ubiquitous.

The hype surrounding the introduction of desktop computers into public schools in the early 1980s promised a transformation in students’ academic achievement, how teachers taught, and access to jobs in an increasingly changing economy. Districts mandated keyboarding classes, set up computer labs, and gave professional development to teachers after machines were deployed. By the late-1990s, Internet connections spread to most schools and in the next few years, wireless became standard. In the early 2000s, 1:1 laptops were introduced and spread.

Every few years, states and districts, with funding help from various grant-givers including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, bought and deployed new desktops and eventually laptop computers to schools and classrooms.

By 2014, school laptops and tablets are commonplace. Yet had academic achievement improved as a consequence? Had teaching and learning changed? Did use of devices in schools lead to better jobs?

These questions get at the inflated  promises school officials made prior to purchasing new technologies and what happened after states and districts adopted such policies. The answers to the above questions are no, no, and don’t know (see here, here, and here). Like MOOCs going from the purple rhetoric of inflated hopes to finding a small niche where online courses can be taught to motivated adults and students, the journey of desktop computers to hand-held devices in K-12 schools has certainly entered most classrooms as teaching and learning tools but has hardly transformed age-graded schools into those dream-like scenarios that champions of new technology promoted.

Nonetheless, most K-12 teachers use these devices in different ways every week. Lessons using software on, say, the five desktops in the room or the 30 laptops or tablets on the cart, are common across elementary and secondary schools. Yet these powerful computers have hardly altered the prevailing ways of teaching that have gone on for years. What has  occurred is that teachers have expanded their teaching repertoire to incorporate software and hardware. New technologies have found a niche in classrooms far smaller than the promises that originally accompanied new technologies.

And locating in small niches is what has happened time and again to new technologies such as MOOCs and computers in K-12 classrooms.

 

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Technologies and School Reform: Kissing Cousins*

Over the years, I often get asked how I got interested in the uses of technology in schools and classrooms. I answer the same way each time. When I taught high school history and as a district administrator in two urban school system I was the target for a quarter-century of high-tech innovations and classroom reforms. Again and again.

I then add that I have been trained as an historian and studied many efforts of reformers to improve schooling over the past century in U.S. classrooms, schools, and districts. I looked at how teachers have taught since the 1890s. I analyzed policymakers’ frequent curricular changes since the 1880s. I even investigated the origins of the age-graded school and the spread of this innovation through the 19th century. I also parsed the utopian dreams of reformers who believed that new machine technologies (e.g., film, radio, instructional television, desktop computer) would alter how teachers teach and students learn. Almost out of words, I end my answer by pointing out that these electronic devices are in the DNA of all classroom-driven reforms aimed at altering how teachers teach and how students learn. That long answer usually squashes follow-up questions.

What surprises me is that these questioners had not viewed high-tech innovations as having either a history in schools or as blood relations to constant efforts to improve schools. Instead, they saw (and, sadly enough, still see) innovative high-tech devices as singular, even exceptional, ways of transforming teaching and learning completely divorced from previous efforts at improving classroom practice through curricular (e.g., math, social studies, science), instructional (e.g., project-based learning, direct instruction) and organizational (e.g., site-based management, charters, mayoral control) reforms.

And that is a big conceptual error. Why? Because, school and classroom reforms including technological ones, are part of the same genetic code.

Creating “blended learning” schools, introducing online learning, or deploying tablets to each and every student is an organizational and instructional reform. Teachers using Class Dojo, Chemix School and Lab, Algebrator, and other software programs are implementing classroom organizational and curricular reforms and shaping instruction.

Technological innovations, then, are kissing cousins to curricular, instructional, and organizational reforms. Consequently, they share similar components.

All reforms come bathed in rhetoric. Take the “21st Century Skills” effort, organized by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, a coalition whose members include Verizon, Hewlett-Packard, Apple, and Dell. Their mission is to prepare the current generation of children and youth to compete in a globalized economy. Their words, like the rhetoric of so many other reformers—past and present—portray a economic, social, and political crisis for U.S. competition in world markets unless today’s youth leave school fully equipped with the skills of creating, innovating, problem-solving, collaborating, and critically thinking. And don’t forget: a repertoire of technological skills. The rhetoric must not only create a sense of crisis, it must portray existing institutions as woefully deficient.

Going from policy talk to classroom practice. Patterns can be observed in the journey from policy talk to an adopted program to ending up in classrooms. Designing the policy and program means frequent revisions as they go through the political vetting process to get adopted and funded (think of Los Angeles Unified School District’s iPad purchase and roll-out, and any brand-new math program for a district). Ditto for finding patterns in the degree to which those adopted policies get implemented and changed as the design wends its way into the school and eventually into the classroom (Common Core standards in reading, online instruction).

 Criteria to judge success of reform. If reform rhetoric, policy adoption, and putting innovations into practice can be examined for regularities so can the criteria used to assess the reform (e.g., test scores, satisfaction of teachers and students with innovation, rates of graduation, etc.). Once assessed, determining whether or not the reform should be incorporated—should the innovation be sustained–in school and classroom practices is a judgment call that authorities make on a mix of political interests, ideological fervor, available resources, and research evidence.

By now, you get my point. In viewing technological innovations as a sub-set of curricular, instructional, and organizational reforms, teachers, principals, and parents can identify patterns, determine consequences for the adoption of the innovation, track the journey as it goes from policy to classroom practice, and expect certain outcomes while being open to unanticipated ones as well.

Too many policymakers, practitioners, and parents see technological innovations as unique initiatives unrelated to the historic patterns in school reforms. They err. My experiences as a practitioner and historian have taught me to see technological devices as part of the river of reform that has flowed constantly through U.S. schools for nearly two centuries.

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*This is an updated version of an earlier post.

 

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Looking at Children Use of Technologies at Home and School

Parents, as usual are caught in the middle. A recent article by Hannah Rosin–a Mom herself–looks into the dilemma facing parents. Called “The Touch-Screen Generation,” Rosin explores the choices that largely educated, middle and upper-middle class parents face when it comes to deciding whether their infants and toddlers should have the devices and, if so, for how long should they be swiping screens each day. (See four minute video in Rosin article).

On the dilemma facing parents and how much time children should be using devices for games, talking, and facing a screen, Rosin opts for parental judgment on a child-by-child basis. She does not see high-tech devices for toddlers and young children as an enemy to be fought and conquered. She does not, however, speak to the plasticity of the brain and the capacities of new electronic devices altering how children learn, what content and skills they retain, and the habits that children accrue.

With the rush to buy iPads for toddlers and kindergartners and the spread of tablets and smart phones among children and youth, can (or should) parents and schools do anything about use at home and school of the increasingly pervasive technologies?

Keep in mind that there are social class differences in how parents and significant adults allow their children use of screen devices. A number of studies have found, for example, that:

*African-American and Latino children ages 0 to 8 spend more time with screen media, including television, video games, and computers than their white peers.

*Rates of bedroom television are more than twice as high among African-American (69%) and Hispanic (66%) children than for white children in the same age group (28%).

*Children from low-income families (less than $30,000 annually) spend more time with television and videos and have bedroom television rates more than three times higher than children from middle- and upper-income families.

Parents have three choices in managing the dilemma of how much screen time and high-tech devices should their children use at home. Doing nothing and going with the flow–acceding to their son’s or daughter’s request for the newest device is what many parents do. A second option is to make deliberate choices based on parents’ values–rules for television watching, ditto for cell phones and tablets. A third choice is to decide on a case-by-case basis. Obviously, combinations of these choices get made as children get older and parents experience untoward events such as unemployment, divorce, illness, death.

And what about school? Consider what Westside Neighborhood School, a private school in Los Angeles, is doing. An NPR reporter described the school and its use of technology recently:

With kids from pre-K through 8th grade, WNS sits tucked into the shadow of a Home Depot in L.A.’s booming Playa Vista neighborhood. It’s close enough to the ocean that the air is more salt than smog.

When talking about screen time and kids’ access to handheld devices, Brad Zacuto, who heads the school, likes to use an old-fashioned analogy: “It’s like putting a child behind a wheel of a car. There’s a lot of power there.”

Think about how dangerous it was back when cars first hit the road, Zacuto says. No traffic lights or street signs. That’s where we are now, he warns, with kids and all this technology at their fingertips. “It’s here to stay. But at some point you have to teach kids how to drive a car responsibly.”

 Zacuto’s tech policy begins with a few basics: First, no smartphones till sixth grade. Even then, kids can bring them, but they have to check them at the front desk.

Second, engaging and educating parents: WNS makes them sign a commitment to limit screen time at home and to keep kids off of social media — again, until sixth grade.

 Also, at school, no technology until second grade. “We choose to have our youngest children engaged in digging in dirt,” Zacuto says, “and building things and using their hands….”

 In second grade, Zacuto says, kids start using classroom laptops. They get some basic lessons in typing and word processing and their first taste of Internet research….

By sixth grade, WNS students may have to check their smartphones at the door, but they get their own school-issued tablets with textbooks on them. Still, Zacuto insists, little valuable class time is spent simply looking down.

When sixth-grade social studies teacher Caitlin Barry gives her students time to read from the textbooks on their iPads, they often do it in pairs, encouraging each other to explore confusing terms or ideas. Some teachers even put short lectures online, for students to watch at home….

“It sort of flips the content,” Zacuto says. “I’d rather be spending my time in school with the teacher, with the kids — doing interactive, collaborative [things], using what we’ve learned.”

 The reporter ended her story on WSN by saying: In other words: “using screens at home to increase the time students spend working face to face in the classroom. It’s a delicate dance, preparing kids for both the Digital Age and the social world.”

The dilemmas facing parents, principals, and teachers about children and youth use of technologies won’t go away. They can, however, be smartly managed.

 

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Why I Just Asked My Students To Put Their Laptops Away (Clay Shirky)

Clay Shirky is a professor of media studies at New York University, consultant on the Internet, and writer. He is writing here about teaching his University courses and a recent decision that he made. The post appeared September 9, 2014.

I teach theory and practice of social media at NYU, and am an advocate and activist for the free culture movement, so I’m a pretty unlikely candidate for internet censor, but I have just asked the students in my fall seminar to refrain from using laptops, tablets, and phones in class.

I came late and reluctantly to this decision — I have been teaching classes about the internet since 1998, and I’ve generally had a laissez-faire attitude towards technology use in the classroom. This was partly because the subject of my classes made technology use feel organic, and when device use went well, it was great. Then there was the competitive aspect — it’s my job to be more interesting than the possible distractions, so a ban felt like cheating. And finally, there’s not wanting to infantilize my students, who are adults, even if young ones — time management is their job, not mine.

Despite these rationales, the practical effects of my decision to allow technology use in class grew worse over time. The level of distraction in my classes seemed to grow, even though it was the same professor and largely the same set of topics, taught to a group of students selected using roughly the same criteria every year. The change seemed to correlate more with the rising ubiquity and utility of the devices themselves, rather than any change in me, the students, or the rest of the classroom encounter.

Over the years, I’ve noticed that when I do have a specific reason to ask everyone to set aside their devices (‘Lids down’, in the parlance of my department), it’s as if someone has let fresh air into the room. The conversation brightens, and more recently, there is a sense of relief from many of the students. Multi-tasking is cognitively exhausting — when we do it by choice, being asked to stop can come as a welcome change.

So this year, I moved from recommending setting aside laptops and phones to requiring it, adding this to the class rules: “Stay focused. (No devices in class, unless the assignment requires it.)” Here’s why I finally switched from ‘allowed unless by request’ to ‘banned unless required’.

We’ve known for some time that multi-tasking is bad for the quality of cognitive work, and is especially punishing of the kind of cognitive work we ask of college students.

This effect takes place over more than one time frame — even when multi-tasking doesn’t significantly degrade immediate performance, it can have negative long-term effects on “declarative memory,” the kind of focused recall that lets people characterize and use what they learned from earlier studying. (Multi-tasking thus makes the famous “learned it the day before the test, forgot it the day after” effect even more pernicious.)

People often start multi-tasking because they believe it will help them get more done. Those gains never materialize; instead, efficiency is degraded. However, it provides emotional gratification as a side-effect. (Multi-tasking moves the pleasure of procrastination inside the period of work.) This side-effect is enough to keep people committed to multi-tasking despite worsening the very thing they set out to improve.

On top of this, multi-tasking doesn’t even exercise task-switching as a skill. A study from Stanford reports that heavy multi-taskers are worse at choosing which task to focus on. (“They are suckers for irrelevancy”, as Cliff Nass, one of the researchers put it.) Multi-taskers often think they are like gym rats, bulking up their ability to juggle tasks, when in fact they are like alcoholics, degrading their abilities through over-consumption.

This is all just the research on multi-tasking as a stable mental phenomenon. Laptops, tablets and phones — the devices on which the struggle between focus and distraction is played out daily — are making the problem progressively worse. Any designer of software as a service has an incentive to be as ingratiating as they can be, in order to compete with other such services. “Look what a good job I’m doing! Look how much value I’m delivering!”

This problem is especially acute with social media, because on top of the general incentive for any service to be verbose about its value, social information is immediately and emotionally engaging. Both the form and the content of a Facebook update are almost irresistibly distracting, especially compared with the hard slog of coursework. (“Your former lover tagged a photo you are in” vs. “The Crimean War was the first conflict significantly affected by use of the telegraph.” Spot the difference?)

Worse, the designers of operating systems have every incentive to be arms dealers to the social media firms. Beeps and pings and pop-ups and icons, contemporary interfaces provide an extraordinary array of attention-getting devices, emphasis on “getting.” Humans are incapable of ignoring surprising new information in our visual field, an effect that is strongest when the visual cue is slightly above and beside the area we’re focusing on. (Does that sound like the upper-right corner of a screen near you?)

The form and content of a Facebook update may be almost irresistible, but when combined with a visual alert in your immediate peripheral vision, it is—really, actually, biologically—impossible to resist. Our visual and emotional systems are faster and more powerful than our intellect; we are given to automatic responses when either system receives stimulus, much less both. Asking a student to stay focused while she has alerts on is like asking a chess player to concentrate while rapping their knuckles with a ruler at unpredictable intervals.

Jonathan Haidt’s metaphor of the elephant and the rider is useful here. In Haidt’s telling, the mind is like an elephant (the emotions) with a rider (the intellect) on top. The rider can see and plan ahead, but the elephant is far more powerful. Sometimes the rider and the elephant work together (the ideal in classroom settings), but if they conflict, the elephant usually wins.

After reading Haidt, I’ve stopped thinking of students as people who simply make choices about whether to pay attention, and started thinking of them as people trying to pay attention but having to compete with various influences, the largest of which is their own propensity towards involuntary and emotional reaction. (This is even harder for young people, the elephant so strong, the rider still a novice.)

Regarding teaching as a shared struggle changes the nature of the classroom. It’s not me demanding that they focus — its me and them working together to help defend their precious focus against outside distractions. I have a classroom full of riders and elephants, but I’m trying to teach the riders.

And while I do, who is whispering to the elephants? Facebook, Wechat, Twitter, Instagram, Weibo, Snapchat, Tumblr, Pinterest, the list goes on, abetted by the designers of the Mac, iOS, Windows, and Android. In the classroom, it’s me against a brilliant and well-funded army (including, sharper than a serpent’s tooth, many of my former students.) These designers and engineers have every incentive to capture as much of my students’ attention as they possibly can, without regard for any commitment those students may have made to me or to themselves about keeping on task.

It doesn’t have to be this way, of course. Even a passing familiarity with the literature on programming, a famously arduous cognitive task, will acquaint you with stories of people falling into code-flow so deep they lose track of time, forgetting to eat or sleep. Computers are not inherent sources of distraction — they can in fact be powerful engines of focus — but latter-day versions have been designed to be, because attention is the substance which makes the whole consumer internet go.

The fact that hardware and software is being professionally designed to distract was the first thing that made me willing to require rather than merely suggest that students not use devices in class. There are some counter-moves in the industry right now — software that takes over your screen to hide distractions, software that prevents you from logging into certain sites or using the internet at all, phones with Do Not Disturb options — but at the moment these are rear-guard actions. The industry has committed itself to an arms race for my students’ attention, and if it’s me against Facebook and Apple, I lose.

The final realization — the one that firmly tipped me over into the “No devices in class” camp — was this: screens generate distraction in a manner akin to second-hand smoke. A paper with the blunt title Laptop Multitasking Hinders Classroom Learning for Both Users and Nearby Peers says it all:

We found that participants who multitasked on a laptop during a lecture scored lower on a test compared to those who did not multitask, and participants who were in direct view of a multitasking peer scored lower on a test compared to those who were not. The results demonstrate that multitasking on a laptop poses a significant distraction to both users and fellow students and can be detrimental to comprehension of lecture content.

I have known, for years, that the basic research on multi-tasking was adding up, and that for anyone trying to do hard thinking (our spécialité de la maison, here at college), device use in class tends to be a net negative. Even with that consensus, however, it was still possible to imagine that the best way to handle the question was to tell the students about the research, and let them make up their own minds.

The “Nearby Peers” effect, though, shreds that rationale. There is no laissez-faire attitude to take when the degradation of focus is social. Allowing laptop use in class is like allowing boombox use in class — it lets each person choose whether to degrade the experience of those around them.

Groups also have a rider-and-elephant problem, best described by Wilfred Bion in an oddly written but influential book, Experiences in Groups. In it, Bion, who practiced group therapy, observed how his patients would unconsciously coordinate their actions to defeat the purpose of therapy. In discussing the ramifications of this, Bion observed that effective groups often develop elaborate structures, designed to keep their sophisticated goals from being derailed by more primal group activities like gossiping about members and vilifying non-members.

The structure of a classroom, and especially a seminar room, exhibits the same tension. All present have an incentive for the class to be as engaging as possible; even though engagement often means waiting to speak while listening to other people wrestle with half-formed thoughts, that’s the process by which people get good at managing the clash of ideas. Against that long-term value, however, each member has an incentive to opt out, even if only momentarily. The smallest loss of focus can snowball, the impulse to check WeChat quickly and then put the phone away leading to just one message that needs a reply right now, and then, wait, what happened last night??? (To the people who say “Students have always passed notes in class”, I reply that old-model notes didn’t contain video and couldn’t arrive from anywhere in the world at 10 megabits a second.)

I have the good fortune to teach in cities richly provisioned with opportunities for distraction. Were I a 19-year-old planning an ideal day in Shanghai, I would not put “Listen to an old guy talk for an hour” at the top of my list. (Vanity prevents me from guessing where it would go.) And yet I can teach the students things they are interested in knowing, and despite all the literature on joyful learning, from Marie Montessori on down, some parts of making your brain do new things are just hard.

Indeed, college contains daily exercises in delayed gratification. “Discuss early modern European print culture” will never beat “Sing karaoke with friends” in a straight fight, but in the long run, having a passable Rhianna impression will be a less useful than understanding how media revolutions unfold.

Anyone distracted in class doesn’t just lose out on the content of the discussion, they create a sense of permission that opting out is OK, and, worse, a haze of second-hand distraction for their peers. In an environment like this, students need support for the better angels of their nature (or at least the more intellectual angels), and they need defenses against the powerful short-term incentives to put off complex, frustrating tasks. That support and those defenses don’t just happen, and they are not limited to the individual’s choices. They are provided by social structure, and that structure is disproportionately provided by the professor, especially during the first weeks of class.

This is, for me, the biggest change — not a switch in rules, but a switch in how I see my role. Professors are at least as bad at estimating how interesting we are as the students are at estimating their ability to focus. Against oppositional models of teaching and learning, both negative—Concentrate, or lose out!—and positive—Let me attract your attention!—I’m coming to see student focus as a collaborative process. It’s me and them working to create a classroom where the students who want to focus have the best shot at it, in a world increasingly hostile to that goal.

Some of the students will still opt out, of course, which remains their prerogative and rightly so, but if I want to help the ones who do want to pay attention, I’ve decided it’s time to admit that I’ve brought whiteboard markers to a gun fight, and act accordingly.

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