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

Sidewalk Toronto looks a lot like another Internet gatekeeper

Sidewalk Toronto will let you kayak right up to your “smart” condo

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Last week, I attended a public lecture given by Andrew Clement, professor emeritus at the U of T Faculty of Information, and longtime advocate for the public interest in the digital life. His subject was the Sidewalk Toronto project, known as Quayside — aimed at building an honest-to-goodness Smart City on a 12-acre parcel of land on Toronto’s waterfront.

The project is controversial, not surprising since it’s the brainchild of Sidewalk Labs (SWL) — in turn the brainchild of Alphabet and “sibling” of Google. SWL isn’t an ISP and Google isn’t readying one of its Google Fiber deployments up here. Still, SWL is clearly emerging as the kind of gatekeeper that inspires mistrust and suspicion — just like the incumbents who control our Internet access.

Privacy, meet information asymmetry

Clement provided a balanced but highly critical account of how Google and Waterfront Toronto got us into what promises to be a hot public policy mess. He did so by presenting what is known about the project, then asking a lot of challenging questions. Many were related to the issues of jurisdiction, ownership, control and, most importantly, how the public will actually benefit from the deal while having their, our, welfare protected. Prof. Clement was particularly concerned about the delicate topic of the risks Quayside might unleash on privacy — already a lively part of the debate in the media. Continue reading

We only hurt the ones we love: phoning in more bad news

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Everyone I talk to concedes smartphones are bad for us. Very few agree on exactly what the harms are — let alone what to do about them.

Experts have two main takes on where to look for digital harms. One is directed at the reader. Your digital life is a misery, here’s what to do. Author Paul Greenberg will soon publish iQuit: 50 Things to Do iNstead — and gives us a foretaste in a piece titled “In Search of Lost Screen Time.” With a forthright sub-title: “Imagine what we could do with our money, and hours, if we set our phones aside for a year.”

The other approach is to blame everything on Silicon Valley, and these days who wouldn’t. One recent example is A People’s History of Silicon Valley by Keith Spencer, with another forthright sub-title: “How the tech industry exploits workers, erodes privacy and undermines democracy.”

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Banned! France vows to make school kids pay attention

The cool French kids: ditching their phones at school?

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In January, I mentioned a bold move promised by French education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer: a ban on phones in the lower grades. I took exception to two planned exceptions noted by the minister:

“You may need a mobile phone, for example, for educational purposes, for emergency situations…” Oops. As soon as you allow that phones have any legitimate purpose in the classroom then students, vendors and campus admins will all find ingenious wedges to beat the system.

I also pointed out France had had a similar law on the books since 2011. Fast forward to last month, with the new rules in place (an official announcement is posted on the ministry website).

The new law is aimed at school kids in “écoles” (grades 1-5) and “collèges” (grades 6-9). It’s remarkable the authorities have passed legislation to confront this crisis of inattention, which covers all networked devices. Even more so that they’ve gone way back to 1st grade, recognizing that bad habits begin early. Continue reading