Pointed to this article in Chronicle Careers, on the effect of modern distractions in the lecture hall, by yet another post on the Second Life Education Mailing list. For a short article, it covers a lot of ground – and some of the points are quite thought provoking. More below.
In short, as more lecture halls and class rooms are set up for wireless, more and more students are using their laptops in the lecture hall. But they aren’t necessarily using them for taking notes, following up class related links or similar. No, they are more likely to be checking out MySpace pages, IM’ing friends or playing The Sims. Or buying shoes on eBay. And anecdotal evidence supports the common-sense assumption that this leads to poorer learning outcomes…
Cynthia M. Frisby, associate professor of strategic communication at the University of Missouri, has noticed students on MySpace and eBay during her lectures. She has also noticed more failing grades. The final straw, she says, came in an e-mail from a student “complimenting my outfit, failing to realize that the time stamp was on the e-mail, further suggesting that he was not paying attention to my lecture.”
Now she bans laptops in her large lecture courses and has a clause in her syllabus about the inappropriate use of technology. The result? “Huge increases in attention and better performance on exams,” she says. “Students have even mentioned that they feel like they are doing better without the laptop.”
This is not too different from my own experience. About 6 years ago I found someone playing ‘Snake’ on his mobile phone in my classroom. I have to admit that I was completely taken aback with that. When one student is using a laptop, and other students around are drawn to the screen, I know it isn’t being used for notes…
The article also include quotes with a very familiar feel to anyone who has read Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death” – or any of the numerous posts on this blog where I refer to it:
Adams cites a 1972 work by Eda LeShan on “The Sesame Street Syndrome.” She argued that, by overemphasizing the idea of right and wrong answers, the show taught children that thinking and questions are irrelevant because adults do the asking and answering. Nowadays, the syndrome “has come to describe students who expect to be entertained as they learn,” Adams wrote, adding: “If the entertainment doesn’t come from the front of the wireless classroom, it comes from the Internet.”
The article also includes some coping methods – such as allowing laptops but asking students to close them when there is a point needing emphasis. Somewhat deeper are comments on the philosophy of a technology led education system… e.g.:
“We should be teaching our students to think creatively or to become innovators, not just test takers,” he says.
That goal is increasingly difficult to attain. We deal with legislatures holding school districts “accountable” through multiple-choice testing as they cut budgets to higher education, resulting in ever-larger classes where digital distractions are most common and where we rely again on computer-graded bubble tests emphasizing right answers rather than process.
I could easily pick three or four more quotable paragraphs, but I’ll leave it there.
It is extremely unlikely that banning technologies from the classroom is going to be a viable long-term solution for the problems of distraction – so we need to develop more strategies for coping, and to better educate our students on how to use technology productively.