Death in the classroom

Technology totem, Tate Modern

[1750 words]

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!

The most loyal defenders of the right to be distracted while pretending to learn are those who belong to the ed-tech-industrial complex:

“Cellphones are deeply entrenched in our lives, which can’t be ignored. It’s better to help students figure out how to manage distractions instead of trying to eliminate it…to harness it and help make it productive.”

Thus spake Jesse Stommel, executive director of the division of teaching and learning technology at the University of Mary Washington, as cited by NBC News. To be fair, I have no idea what Stommel has in mind. But I’ve yet to meet a student with a phone, or a laptop or tablet, who could “manage” the built-in distractions enough to pay attention to anything going on in the classroom around them.

I’ve been yacking about classroom ADD for a long time, including over 50 posts tagged addiction, education, multitasking and/or tech-in-the-classroom, among other kicks at that can. I’ve also got a long-winded piece on the subject buried away — 7,000-plus words on how my attitude to phones in the classroom evolved from petty annoyance to official policy.

So rather than reinvent this particular wheel, here’s the initial 1,300 words, complete with occasional anachronisms…

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The Pen-and-Paper Lab (1)

Call her Kathy. She was getting terrible grades. My pleas to stay off her phone were getting nowhere. Finally, I moved her to a front-row seat so I was hovering right over her — oblivious, she kept on texting. I’d become invisible.

Kathy was the last straw in my bale of classroom discontent. I couldn’t take the constant lack of attention anymore. I saw my mission, teaching liberal arts undergrads how the Internet works, as challenging and important. The learning curve was tough enough without the distractions of personal messaging and self-indulgent browsing.

So, in the fall of 2013, I traded in a headful of despair for a roomful of shock and annoyance. Up on the big screen I projected a message reading “You are in a 100% cell-free zone,” superimposed on a skull and crossbones. But I knew signage wasn’t enough, so I announced I was confiscating all the phones, not just asking they be “put away” — been there, done that, got snookered. They were going to be physically out of reach in perpetuity. Well, for three hours at least.

I’d come to another realization. Digital devices of any kind in the classroom were as much a part of the problem as phones, so I also banned the use of laptops, tablets and even the 28 shiny iMacs populating our computer lab. My paradigm shift featured the resurrection of pen and paper, a Neanderthal technology, to record my pearls of wisdom. For fans of irony, this setup was a winner — courses on digital technology taught in a computer lab, for the benefit of digital natives who turned out not to know the first thing about digital technology, and were forced to play catchup by… surrendering all their digital devices.

I didn’t know it at the time but I wasn’t the first to go down this road. In the late 1990s, Harvard Law School provided Ethernet jacks for laptops at every classroom desk — but later removed them because their students had stopped paying attention. In 2005 New York City banned phones from all school premises — and later reversed the ban on the grounds that it was inequitable for lower-income students. A Stanford University study in 2009 claimed that the much-ballyhooed exercise of multitasking, far from promoting productivity, in fact reduces it. And in 2010 the French ministry of education banned phones from all primary and secondary schools — then had to ban them again in 2017 because nobody had been paying attention to the original legislation. Clearly, I had my work cut out for me [see endnotes for sources].

Kathy was not alone in her self-indulgence. Students had climbed aboard that bandwagon en masse and instructors in droves complained about the plague of digital inattention. Like others, I misread the phone antics as irredeemable bad manners — a conclusion that encouraged my feelings of wounded self-esteem before an audience that wasn’t even pretending to listen to me. 

My students were surprised at this extreme form of deprivation — and I was surprised at how hard they were taking it. Some complained they’d forgotten how to write in longhand, others that they could only keep organized by storing all their work on a laptop. To me, those were small sacrifices for a group that wasn’t even remotely using their devices to learn course content. Apart from some occasional googling, everyone was buried in a never-ending tsunami of instant messaging, texting, videogaming and social media postings. 

To the uninformed — like me — most of this traffic was mere bar banter. But deeper feelings were at play, and it was easy to miss the intense peer pressure lurking behind the social media fun and games. One student confided with tears in her eyes that if she didn’t respond to texts from her BFFs within seconds, she was assumed to be in some sort of trouble — or she was being a bitch. Another student reported that her mother was not prepared to be out of touch with her offspring for an entire class and advised her to drop my course.

I got the anxiety part. What I didn’t get was the ethics. Nobody thought they were doing anything wrong. And by that I mean the practical ethics, including the crazyass notion that if you (or your parents) are paying thousands of dollars for a degree program, and you’re worried sick about graduating and finding something classier than a McJob, why would you spend most of your time in most courses not paying attention?

Part of the answer hearkened back to a simple proposition — ’twas always thus. Not everybody in a given classroom can be the best, no matter what the valedictorians say. Some students were bound to have trouble focusing, no matter how they took notes. And sure, Kathy and her ilk were doing worse on assignments than their less text-obsessed classmates. But something bigger was afoot. 

What we had here wasn’t simply a long-standing convention — listen up! — getting breached by a failure to listen up. We had the new media tail wagging the old scholastic dog. More than just pervasive, more than entrenched, texting in class was now an entitlement. I was well aware that, when you’re 20, a sense of entitlement goes with the territory. What I didn’t get, on the other hand, is that texting wasn’t like coming to class stoned. While both might interfere with an education, texting wasn’t strictly recreational. On the contrary, texting was the tacit celebration of a student’s exalted status as a digital native — the mistaken view that they were born more tech-savvy than their elders.

This “nativism” belief about kids today goes a long way toward explaining why educators have been so reluctant to mess with the phone culture. You might assume instructors take the hands-off approach simply because they’re afraid of pushback. And the administrative big shots might be too distracted by the shiny new sports stadium to pay attention to the campus learning environment. All that may be true, but the educators see more in phone play than mere youthful misbehaving — they think it’s how students learn.

The belief that kids have special digital powers, and every right to exercise them in class, mirrors the belief that learning is like listening to audio recordings while asleep. If you’re convinced students can actually learn this way, then the idea of classroom “inattention” dissolves into a kind of optical illusion. Those digitally gifted brains that seem lost in cyberspace are just multitasking, quietly snapping up course material as it floats past them, like so many well-tuned dish antennas.

Although wireless connectivity and smartphones like Kathy’s were game changers, students had been recording lecture notes and other course information on laptops for years. Productivity tools like PowerPoint had swarmed classrooms just as they had swarmed offices and boardrooms. But the laptops and software applications were themselves late add-ons to a long line of educational technologies promoted by the learning institutions themselves — especially desktop computers, which were paid for, installed and utilized as teaching aids in countless different ways. As a result, educators have tended to treat smartphones as an extension of the educational technologies already in place. Why stop at a few computing devices when you can have more?

Personal computers transformed teaching because they offer efficient, captivating ways of conveying information. According to the prevailing wisdom, lectures benefit from visual aids displayed on a big screen in the form of overheads, slide decks, movies, Internet feeds. On their side of the lectern, students have been blessed with many of technology’s gifts, including those based on the tech industry’s deep love affair with personalization. The bad news about this form of progress, however, is that the better and more personalized phones get, the more tempting they become as inattention instigators.

No one should be surprised that the ever-greater resort to technology has been working against its perceived benefits. That’s because ed tech is being asked to cure far more problems than it’s cut out for. If students are under-motivated and under-performing, the easy impulse is to throw more hardware at them on the logic that, if devices make students happy, then we should give them more devices.

D.E.