When Students Attempt to Multitask in the Lecture Hall…

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.

2 thoughts on “When Students Attempt to Multitask in the Lecture Hall…

  1. Colin Purrington

    A common excuse for allowing laptops is that students have _always_ been able to distract themselves, such as doodling or passing notes to the person next to them (which they still do, by the way). Any opinion on how laptops, cell phone IMing, and iPod fussing is any different?

    Any thoughts on simply asking the gadgetiles to simply sit in the back, where they are less likely to distract others? I.e., a lot of students are transfixed by watching YouTube on the laptops rows closer to the lecturer.

  2. Daniel Livingstone

    I think the novel element is that laptops etc. can be far more engaging than many of the distractions of the past – making it easier to pay even less attention to the lecture.

    On the other hand… there are technologies now which can be used to make lectures more interactive. I guess that where available these should be used to at the least encourage students to engage with the lecture. In the time since I first posted that note, I’ve had more chance to experiment with response systems and the like, and hope to build more use of these (and/or other means of in-class feedback and formative assessment) into my own lectures.

    And on the third hand… I personally always got more value from tutorials and labs than lectures, and am nowadays often annoyed by students who are happy to sit passively in a lecture but won’t come to the labs where they get a chance to really learn stuff


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