Professor Quits Teaching Because of Students’ Use of Technology in Class

The combination of computer use, Internet, and smart phone, I would argue, has changed the cognitive skills required of individuals…. The student can rapidly check on his or her smartphone whether the professor is right, or indeed whether there isn’t some other authority offering an entirely different approach. With the erosion of that relationship [between professor and students] goes the environment that nurtured it: the segregated space of the classroom where, for an hour or so, all attention was focused on a single person who brought all of his or her experience to the service of the group.

Tim Parks, 2019

In the above epigraph taken from “Dying Art of Instruction in the Digital Classroom,” Novelist, literary scholar, and translator Tim Parks gives the reasons why he is leaving his professorship at the University Institute for Modern Languages in Milan, Italy.  Parks describes his experience with students using devices in his class teaching translation:

In the late 1990s, I had my first experience of students bringing laptops into the classroom. At that time, there was no question of their having wifi connections. Since these were translation lessons, students argued that their computers were useful for the fifteen or twenty minutes when I invited them to translate a short paragraph. They translated better on their computers, they said; they could make corrections more easily.

Nevertheless, I noticed at once the tendency to hide behind the screen. Who could know whether a student was really taking notes or doing something else? The tippety-tapping of keyboards while one was speaking was distracting. I insisted laptops be kept closed except for the brief period of our translation exercise.

When the University renovated classrooms with laptops at each desk, Parks requested an “old fashioned” classroom and got it until the University had no more such classrooms for Parks to use. Bad as that was for Parks’ struggle with students using laptops during translation lessons, the advent of the smart phone did him in.

I continued to fight my fight and keep the laptops mainly closed, and I was holding my own pretty well I think, until the smartphone came into the classroom….

So I have thirty students behind computer screens attached to the Internet. If I sit behind my desk at the front of the class, or even stand, I cannot see their faces. In their pockets, in their hands, or simply open in front of them, they have their smartphones, their ongoing conversations with their boyfriends, girlfriends, mothers, fathers, or other friends very likely in other classrooms. There is now a near total interpenetration of every aspect of their lives through the same electronic device.

To keep some kind of purpose and momentum, I walked back and forth here and there, constantly seeking to remind them of my physical presence. But all the time the students have their instruments in front of them that compel their attention. While in the past they would frequently ask questions when there was something they didn’t understand—real interactivity, in fact—now they are mostly silent, or they ask their computers. Any chance of entering into that “passion of instruction” is gone. I decided it was time for me to go with it.

So Parks retired.

Is Parks’ experience as a professor in a Milan university who vainly tries to cope with students use of electronic devices common? I cannot answer for the European professoriate but there is data on U.S. faculty attitudes and actions when it comes to computers in classrooms..

There have been U.S. professors who have complained about student use of laptops and phones in their classrooms (see here, here, and here). Yet few leave the privileged job as Parks has done. Is he an anomaly, a singleton, or is he in one of the familiar categories that capture the range of classroom use by both professors and K-12 teachers?

For example, Everett Rogers divides users of innovation, in this instance, classroom technologies into groups. Put Parks in the laggard category.

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A recent survey of U.S. faculty attitudes toward technology use in their classrooms, however, would place Parks in a tiny minority of just over 10 percent of faculty. That same survey puts 90 percent of tenured professors describing themselves as early adopters or inclined to adopt when seeing peers using classroom technologies effectively.

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I cite Tim Parks’ experience as a professor to illustrate the many changes–I do not use the word “improvements”–that have occurred in higher education’s embrace of classroom technologies. That embrace has been duplicated and enlarged among K-12 teachers. I take up access, use, and results of putting technology in public schools in the next post.

4 Comments

Filed under higher education, how teachers teach, technology use

4 responses to “Professor Quits Teaching Because of Students’ Use of Technology in Class

  1. Reuben Rubio

    Thank you for the thought-provoking read. Yes, many profs are early adopters – and many I have observed in my 20+ years in higher ed were also early adopters of using technology during faculty meetings, prof dev workshops, committee discussions, etc., doing things such as email, grading, surfing and texting. I was one of those for many years. Maybe about ten years ago I decided that I really needed to give “what was happening in the moment” my full focus. So now I don’t check email, I only check a web site or other such when it is germane to the meeting or prof dev workshop or committee discussion, and I put my phone on silent. I take written notes on an old-fashioned notepad, and file them in physical folders. But I still notice too many of my colleagues “multitasking” like the students described above or as I did for many years, even to this day. I’m reluctant to put it all on students, I think we all contribute to the problem and we have to decide to “solve” it together.

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