And that’s it on the classroom crisis for now (5)

The Tate Modern

This is part 5 of the 5 parts on the classroom crisis that I began in August.

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Digital life lessons

The progress I achieved in the classroom all started with banning the students’ digital devices. I was their lord and master for three hours, and I assumed dealing with the attention problem was the easy part — after confiscating everyone’s phones I just had to wait for the dust to settle. But I soon learned that a phone ban is more complicated than it looks because it’s all about the follow-through.

After initiating the ban I noted reactions around the room and heard from students how they were feeling. Not good was the consensus — at first. For most a feeling of annoyance or hostility was mixed in with apprehension about how things would go in a phone-less three-hour stretch of class. That struck me as pretty much how millions of people, students and otherwise, feel about their tech dependencies. But unlike what happens in the real world, I had several advantages going for me. I had a captive audience, more or less. We had lots to do in the time slot, plus everyone could see a hard end-point when our time was up, but mostly we had a syllabus to cover. I figured the only way to make this scene work was to ensure everyone forgot their plight, the better to focus on the wonderful discoveries about the digital world they inhabit. A sprinkling of colorful language didn’t hurt. Continue reading

More on the classroom crisis (4)

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Being Part 4 of a series of posts on the endemic crisis of attention in our classrooms. You’ll find the previous three here (#1), here (#2) and here (#3).

THE PEN-AND-PAPER LAB (4)

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Who you gonna trust?

This jumble of expectations makes digital literacy a tricky goal. I’ve spent years teaching undergrads basic concepts that lead to some degree of digital literacy. I started out in the usual way, with students taking notes on their laptops, texting on their phones and experimenting with applications on the built-in iMacs. When I challenged long-standing assumptions by banishing screens and keyboards, there were drawbacks for some, such as not having class notes stored and searchable on a hard drive. But my pre-ban and post-ban experience, along with the test results at the end of the course, has given me ample opportunity to compare the two styles of learning. One is staring at one or more screens, the other is paying attention to what the other warm bodies in the room are saying, me included. The paying-attention model wins hands down.

This outcome may be surprising given that we’re examining how the Internet works in a Communication Studies course in an all-Mac computer lab housed in a structure that was originally called TEL, aka the Technology-Enhanced Learning Building, until a rich donor bought the naming rights with his $10 million. Common sense —not to mention force of bad habit — might suggest that Comm Studies majors would learn more technical stuff by using the technologies we’re in the midst of examining. Experience proves otherwise. Continue reading

Death in the classroom (3)

THE PEN-AND-PAPER LAB (3)

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Too much tech, not enough literacy

The vendors scooping up ed-tech money aren’t all that concerned about what students are watching in and out of class, if only because it’s none of their business. What they have done is take the mobile revolution as an opportunity to persuade college administrators to give the kids what they want. In practice, that means a lot more than just adding wireless bandwidth. It means taking student preferences as the definitive guide in determining how teachers should teach.

Most courses, advise the vendors, should be re-designed to work on mobile so students can learn their course materials the way that makes them feel most comfortable. More mobile access allows them to study in short bursts at the campus coffee bar or anywhere with a signal, rather than slogging it out for hours on end in the library. Parents and educators should pay heed to the creeping implications of this widely praised model of teaching and learning. Continue reading

Death in the classroom (2)

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This post is excerpted from a much longer piece I once wrote to explain the genesis of my policy on phones in the classroom. It continues where the preceding post left off. (A number of my original citations for this section have gone missing, which I’ll attempt to restore at another time.)

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The Pen-and-Paper Lab (2)

Study here, get world-class Wi-Fi

For college administrators there’s a bigger agenda at work. They’re plagued by chronic underfunding, poor student morale and the conundrum of the university’s would-be role in the job market. Digital technologies are the go-to panacea for all that ails them. Buying flashy new gear that’s blazingly fast and easy to use is far more appealing as a remedy than overhauling the curriculum or training academics to teach better. A big black box with blinking lights that only the IT guys understand is one thing. On the other hand, tinkering with long-standing faculty roles is perceived as a threat to vested interests, not as a remedy. In the ivory tower, territory beats reform every time.  Continue reading

Death in the classroom

Technology totem, Tate Modern

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It starts again on campus next week — persuading 20-something digital addicts to surrender their phones for the duration of my classes.

I’ve been confiscating phones from students for about six years. And the whole idea is still wildly unpopular. Instructors don’t want any confrontation. Administrators don’t want to treat their customers like they’re wrong. Parents don’t want to lose touch. The only interested parties who see the positive outcomes are the students themselves — after they’ve had a few weeks to try on this new lifestyle.

The problem is everyone treats 20-somethings like they’ve got privileged access to the digital domain: We’ll let the kids keep their phones, while we treat technology as a way to rescue the classroom doldrums. The idea that personal technology makes education better just won’t die. Take the story that ran recently on NBC under this surprising headline…

No, the surprising part isn’t the phone ban. It’s the attempt to achieve journalistic “balance” by giving opponents their say. If you take phones from students to eliminate classroom distractions, well… the joke’s on you! Because these kids won’t just get distracted by not having the original distraction. They’ll also get anxiety! Continue reading

Love it or leave it: why you can’t negotiate with a smartphone

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Screen addiction is a fixture of modern life. So too is the belief system that goes with it.

We assume phones have made our kids depressed, isolated and suicidal. We assume that if phones are the problem, we can make them the solution — design them to be less addictive and users will break free. Or, as we saw in the previous post, start using time-management apps and stop wasting time on all those other apps.

Something wrong with this picture? Definitely, say two opinion pieces this week.

Said the spider to the fly. In the first piece, Guardian columnist Oliver Burkeman has a provocative question:  “Can you trust Big Tech to cure you of your smartphone habit?” He has his sights on the “digital wellness” movement, whose aim is to cure our tech addiction with more tech — a subset of the larger credo that sees tech as the fix for everything. Burkeman has spotted my new favorite self-improvement app: Forest, which displays a tree on your phone when you put it down. It gradually begins to grow — oops, and dies when you pick it back up. What will they think of next?

This incrementalism doesn’t solve anything. And really, do grown adults need to see a tree dying to remind them not to waste their lives? Worse, it perpetuates the original problem, leaving you stuck right where they want you, inside the walled garden with its lush, toxic flowering devices:

“… digital wellness aims to diminish your dependency on your devices – but at the cost of increasing your dependency on the corporations behind those devices. … More generally, it seems likely to weaken your self-discipline muscle, by outsourcing the job of managing your time and attention to a third party.”

Crisis without a cause. In the second piece, we find a bigger affront to conventional wisdom. As psychology prof Tracy Dennis-Tiwary writes in the NYT, “Taking Away the Phones Won’t Solve Our Teenagers’ Problems.” Not simply because that ploy, like the anti-app apps, won’t get a parent very far — but because there’s simply no evidence that the compulsive use of smartphones actually causes mental health problems like depression (some specialists see it differently, e.g. Jean Twenge, this lit review, this current study). 

Phones may look like the problem. For kids, however, phones are a symptom, and a very effective coping mechanism for the anxiety that fills their lives:

“… if smartphone addiction is a reflection of adolescent anxiety, cutting screen time may not solve the broader problems that drive teenagers to their screens. Just blaming the machines is a cop-out, a way to avoid the much more difficult task of improving young people’s lives so they won’t need to escape.”

Hard to dispute: ignoring the underlying problems is not a strategy, any more than blaming the devices and their makers.

But here’s the dilemma. You can’t change anyone’s compulsive attachment to their phone without taking it away first. Any more than you can run group therapy while the participants are still high. 

As I’ve explained ad nauseam, I’ve concocted a classroom experience that turns a very unpopular move — taking away student phones — into an unlikely success story. I retold that story as part of a recent report issued by Pew Research in conjunction with its experts survey on the future impact of digital technologies. Unlike the report discussed in the previous post, this one is more anecdotes than analysis: Stories From Experts About the Impact of Digital Life (pdf here).

Here, in slightly under 500 words, is why I’m a big fan of taking phones away — in the right circumstances (Stories, pp. 48-49):

“Several years ago I walked into my fourth-year class and, in a fit of pique, announced I was confiscating everyone’s phone for the entire three hours. I later upped the ante by banning all digital devices in favor of pen and paper. Some unusual revelations have emerged since then – including some happy outcomes from going digital cold turkey. The students in my courses are there to learn about telecom and internet technologies. On the surface, it looks like a perfect match: hyperconnected digital natives acquiring more knowledge about digital. If only. The sad truth is they suffer from a serious behavioral addiction that makes it pretty much impossible for them to pay attention to their instructors or classmates. 

“It also turns out these self-styled digital natives don’t know anything more about digital than their elders. At the start of classes, students react with predictable shock and annoyance when I confiscate their phones. Some even drop out rather than suffer the indignity of being offline for an entire class. Yet to pretty much everyone’s surprise, redemption comes to almost everyone. Within a month, I get enthused reactions about how good it feels to be phone-deprived. Grades go up, along with the quality of class discussion. Some students report this is the first time they’ve been able to concentrate on the course material. Or it’s the only course in which they’ve learned something. That would be flattering if it weren’t such a sad indictment of the state of higher education today, where classrooms have become a wasteland of digital distraction. 

“It’s tempting to assume our hyperconnected 20-somethings are the authors of their own fate, and have only themselves to blame for not getting the best from their education. Except it’s not that simple. First, students are behaving exactly like the grownups in our tech-addled culture, ditching their moment-to-moment social responsibilities for another jab at the screen. Second, the unseemly classroom behavior is a coping strategy for many students, who have to put up with indifferent professors and a pervasive campus culture that casts them in the role of customers rather than learners. And third, they have many enablers – the instructors who see not paying attention as the new normal; the parents who can’t bear to be out of touch with their kids for even an hour; and the campus administrators who turn a blind eye because of their own obsession with new technologies as a panacea for every institutional problem. For all their initial resistance, however, depriving students of their devices for three-hour stretches has turned out to be a remarkably simple and effective solution. There’s also good research that students are less effective at learning their course material when they’re online and ignoring the instructor. Not to mention studies showing that students learn more and better using pen and paper instead of keyboards and screens.” 

D.E.

Continue reading

The digital life is killing higher ed (2)

Yesterday I described the latest Pew/Elon survey on the future of the Internet. The first of three main questions for the participants asked whether the digital life will help or harm our personal well-being. Harm, says I.

The next question asks for a personal anecdote to illustrate some of the concerns being aired:

“Please share a brief personal anecdote about how digital technology has changed your daily life, your family’s life or your friends’ lives in regard to well-being – some brief observation about technology’s impact on life for you, your family or friends. Tell us how this observation or anecdote captures how hyper-connected life changes people’s well-being, compared to the way life was before digital connectivity existed.”

Another easy choice. Here’s what I wrote in my survey response: Continue reading

Are digital technologies bad for us? (1)

Of course they are. Just ask the phone addicts ditching the millions of colors on their hi-res screens in favor of boring old black and white.

This ploy to rescue some personal agency from the jaws of the phone monster is part of a much larger trend engulfing our tech-addled culture. Everyone’s worried. The worries are popping up everywhere — like the New York Times, which asks this week, Is the Answer to Phone Addiction a Worse Phone?

The NYT piece does a nice job of exposing the absurd lengths we’re going to in our digital lives. What’s unusual is that it takes the underlying problem for granted — “twitchy phone checking” — and goes right to a coping mechanism. These days we’ve agreed on a long list of digital evils, from homicidal texting behind the wheel to the end of online privacy. We’ve also agreed on a short list of culprits, with Facebook, Amazon and Google at the top of the list.  Continue reading