Why I Just Asked My Students To Put Their Laptops Away…
Clay Shirky
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Are We Disadvantaging Students by Unplugging?

Clay Shirky, a public intellectual we often cite first when discussing new media just published a piece on Medium describing why he has instituted a ban on screen time during his class.

Shirky supports a well articulated position by citing much of the research into multi-tasking. I do not challenge this work. I know multitasking is tough (read a post by Lisa Neilsen for a response against the claims of multi-tasking).

In his piece, Clay Shirky describes the breath of fresh air, that happens when students unplug:

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.

Shirky then goes on to describe why he cannot compete with social media because the designers have built in tools that speak to us on a biological level.

But what happens when school is one of the few places where students can plug in?

My Problem is Getting Computers Into and Not Out of Student Hands

I am sure (though I do not have the statistics) that the average annual salaries of parents of New York University students and those where I teach at Southern Connecticut State University are vastly different. In fact I am sure the number of advanced, 4-year degrees, and even married couples (all indicators of academic success and technology use) are statistically different between our two institutions.

I teach at a school with a focus on access. I teach at a school where we pride ourselves in recruiting first generation college students. I find these students need MORE and not LESS experience with technology.

I have taught at both University of Connecticut and Southern Connecticut State University. The divide is real. Sometimes this is institutional policy. At UCONN all students were required to purchase a Macbook and the school was a Google Apps for Education university. At SCSU a minority of students come in with laptops. A few more try to use phones and tablets. Having students on a common operating systems and using common tools does matter.

However this difference in ability is more reflected in student competencies. During my first class I asked students to get into groups. They then had to find an image commonly used as a meme, edit the picture, and then post it to a class website using an anchor link. I designed the task for failure (a key lesson I wanted to teach) and to gauge student levels.

Two groups made a meme. Not a single student could explain to me what “href” meant or how it was used. When I taught at UCONN I could say, make a movie, and embed it on our class site without any additional instruction.

Following a policy suggested by Shirky perpetuates this divide.

No Right to Dictate External Storage Methods

I take notes on a computer. Yet I pre-plan my writing and do my greatest thinking on paper. I read mainly PDFs and annotate notes both on a document but sometimes socially on Twitter. I tried making Evernote my external brain. It just didn’t take. This is my system.

My point is what right do I have dictating to other adults what external storage system they have to use? The internet is older than my students. Many have grown up with the internet and have long standing practices to aid their comprehension. Why should I ban their preferred mode of learning?

Is Raising Test Scores the End Goal?

Shirky cites some recent research into multi-tasking to prove computers in the classroom are bad. He cites work that shows a decline in declarative knowledge when students multitask. He also draws heavily into the work of cognitive load.

But isn’t their more important lessons to learn than simple recall? All of the studies cited use some type of outcome measure for learning. If raising test scores and reducing cognitive loads are the only goals of education then we should only use methods that raise declarative knowledge. Therefore all of your classrooms should use nothing but direct instruction and any online education should only use Mayer’s principles of multimedia instruction.

Don’t Underestimate Power of Peer Pressure

Clay Shirky’s biggest issue with multi-tasking is recent work that off-task behaviors affect those around us as well. Shirky cites a recent study that shows those in proximity of others who are off task all have lower test scores.

I think we can not underestimate the power of peer pressure here. We often have enforced social norms through dirty looks and words of encouragement. If you create a culture in your classroom that shuns those who engage in behaviors not inducive to learning it may catch on.

Classroom Management: A Time Honored Issue

While it maybe more effective it is not the duty of students to monitor off task behavior That is the role of the instructor. The behaviors Shirky describes are not the result of tool use but of bad classroom management (Read Jon Becker’s Reply for more).

In my classroom (I am sure many are off task even with my effort) we spent a lot of time describing the difference between building presence and being present. Successful students need to do both, but in world that rewards you with notifications for building presence it is much more difficult to be present. I discuss (and share my lifelong struggle with being present) this important difference with my students.

In fact the discussion grew out of the students first posts where they described how overwhelmed they feel by social media and cherish opportunities to unplug. So I agree with Shirky’s original assertion. Feel free to disconnect for ahwile but never ban.

If Clay Shirky wants to disconnect his teaching about media from all the knowledge in the world I wish him well. He has been and continues a thought leader. I just do not think we should disadvantage adults by denying them access to new technology, dictating how they need to study, reducing them to a test score, or assuming they cannot advocate for their own learning.

Photo credit: Remix of CC Images Unplugged by Nigel Marshall. Flickr; and Jan Seale by Willaim Henrich. Flickr.

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