Paul L. Caron

Saturday, October 25, 2014

NYU Technology Prof Bans Student Use of Technology in His Classroom

Clay Shirky (NYU), Why I Just Asked My Students To Put Their Laptops Away:

GadgetsI teach theory and practice of social media at NYU, and am an advocate and activist for the free culture movement, so I’m a pretty unlikely candidate for internet censor, but I have just asked the students in my fall seminar to refrain from using laptops, tablets, and phones in class.

I came late and reluctantly to this decision — I have been teaching classes about the internet since 1998, and I’ve generally had a laissez-faire attitude towards technology use in the classroom. This was partly because the subject of my classes made technology use feel organic, and when device use went well, it was great. Then there was the competitive aspect — it’s my job to be more interesting than the possible distractions, so a ban felt like cheating. And finally, there’s not wanting to infantilize my students, who are adults, even if young ones — time management is their job, not mine.

Despite these rationales, the practical effects of my decision to allow technology use in class grew worse over time. The level of distraction in my classes seemed to grow, even though it was the same professor and largely the same set of topics, taught to a group of students selected using roughly the same criteria every year. The change seemed to correlate more with the rising ubiquity and utility of the devices themselves, rather than any change in me, the students, or the rest of the classroom encounter. ...

So this year, I moved from recommending setting aside laptops and phones to requiring it, adding this to the class rules: “Stay focused. (No devices in class, unless the assignment requires it.)” Here’s why I finally switched from ‘allowed unless by request’ to ‘banned unless required’.

We’ve known for some time that multi-tasking is bad for the quality of cognitive work, and is especially punishing of the kind of cognitive work we ask of college students. ...

Jonathan Haidt’s metaphor of the elephant and the rider is useful here. In Haidt’s telling, the mind is like an elephant (the emotions) with a rider (the intellect) on top. The rider can see and plan ahead, but the elephant is far more powerful. Sometimes the rider and the elephant work together (the ideal in classroom settings), but if they conflict, the elephant usually wins.

After reading Haidt, I’ve stopped thinking of students as people who simply make choices about whether to pay attention, and started thinking of them as people trying to pay attention but having to compete with various influences, the largest of which is their own propensity towards involuntary and emotional reaction. (This is even harder for young people, the elephant so strong, the rider still a novice.) ...

The final realization — the one that firmly tipped me over into the “No devices in class” camp — was this: screens generate distraction in a manner akin to second-hand smoke. A paper with the blunt title Laptop Multitasking Hinders Classroom Learning for Both Users and Nearby Peers says it all:

We found that participants who multitasked on a laptop during a lecture scored lower on a test compared to those who did not multitask, and participants who were in direct view of a multitasking peer scored lower on a test compared to those who were not. The results demonstrate that multitasking on a laptop poses a significant distraction to both users and fellow students and can be detrimental to comprehension of lecture content. ...

The “Nearby Peers” effect, though, shreds that rationale. There is no laissez-faire attitude to take when the degradation of focus is social. Allowing laptop use in class is like allowing boombox use in class — it lets each person choose whether to degrade the experience of those around them. ...

Professors are at least as bad at estimating how interesting we are as the students are at estimating their ability to focus. Against oppositional models of teaching and learning, both negative—Concentrate, or lose out!—and positive—Let me attract your attention!—I’m coming to see student focus as a collaborative process. It’s me and them working to create a classroom where the students who want to focus have the best shot at it, in a world increasingly hostile to that goal.

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What about requiring students who do use computers to sit off to one side of the room? Or requiring them to use privacy screens? Also, how do you deal with students who need to use their computer because of an ADA accommodation?

Posted by: Matthew Bruckner | Oct 28, 2014 9:22:48 AM

I don't buy into the "my computer distracts you argument," because if it does, that's a you problem. Life/Jobs are full of little distractions, if you cannot tune off the guy doing the crossword puzzle 3 seats in front of you than that's on you.

That said, I also dont buy Rick's "I'm paying the bills" argument; there are several instances where the consumer is subject to rules of the "producer" (airline tickets, sporting events, conduct policy in schools in general). I have absolutely no problem with a professor making a no technology rule because it is their classroom. In the same vein, I also have absolutely no problem with people like Rick who refuse to take classes with these rules.

Posted by: Michael | Oct 27, 2014 5:24:06 AM

Rick, all of the students in the class are paying for it. As the author pointed out, it's fairly clear that one student's device use often distracts other paying students. Why should the other students in class have to pay for one student's addiction? Also, why would your grades matter in this discussion? The plural of anecdote is not data.

Posted by: Tom | Oct 26, 2014 4:19:00 PM

Who's paying for the class? The professor? I am retired military and recently returned to college for a second masters. I intentionally avoided professors who banned technology use in their classrooms when I could. I graduated with a 3.99 GPA. Technology use is not the problem, I'm afraid.

Posted by: Rick | Oct 26, 2014 3:12:40 PM

I'm taking online web design courses and I find it extremely difficult to keep from checking other web sites that have nothing to do with my studies (like Instapundit, which led me here). Of course, shutting off my internet feed is not an option so I just need to develop some self restraint.

Posted by: Al | Oct 26, 2014 2:03:22 PM

I remember a lot of classes where it would have been much more convenient to ignore the droning professor with a smart phone, than with a newspaper, as I used to do.

Posted by: Walter Sobchak | Oct 26, 2014 8:45:52 AM

Excellent idea. I walked into every law school class (and a few final exams) with a fountain pen and a legal pad, and left knowing a fair amount of law. The Chronicle did a study on the amount of information retained by handwriting notes versus typing -- hands down win, so to speak.

Posted by: D.E. Frydrychowski | Oct 25, 2014 8:27:16 AM

Thank you, from a "nearby peer."

Posted by: Shadrooz | Oct 25, 2014 7:01:59 AM