Computers in the Classroom

December 6, 2015 in Education

Today’s New York Times tells us about the pernicious effect digital devices can have on our lives, saying that our “digital life keeps us hooked with an infinite entertainment stream as its default setting. Tech companies often set it up that way.” Referred to as growth hacking, it’s the continual testing and tweeking to better hook consumers and keep them coming back. It can be rewarding, although it can also become excessive or an obsession.

I see the result of this in my classroom almost every day with students who are online instead of in class.  I haven’t yet reached the point of prohibiting phones, pads, and laptops from my class, but I’m getting close. Since every classroom now has Wi-Fi it’s not initially clear if a student is taking notes or has mentally checked out of class. Eventually I can tell, though. Excessive typing, looking at the screen but not typing at all, and smiling or laughing at the wrong time are all giveaways that the student is physically present but mentally absent. The problem is that they don’t know that they’re absent, they think they can multi-task and not miss anything. Last semester I added the following to my syllabus, to no avail.

Numerous studies have shown two things about note taking on computers. First, multitasking (such as taking notes while being on social media or answering email) inevitably results in lower quality of notes and reduced information retention, as described here, here and here. Second, the screens of students who are multitasking are irresistible distractions to other students who can see the screen, as described here.

I’m not a Luddite or anti-technology (case-in-point: this blog) but students and educators need to find a way to stay focused on the course material. It’s great that my students can get online during class. If I go to a site as a demonstration or example, they can follow along and bookmark the site for later. However, when students don’t understand or acknowledge the ways in which they’re sabotaging their own education, something has to change. For my part, I’d love to be able to have control over the Wi-Fi network in my classroom so that the only sites my students can visit are those on my preapproved list. Does such a system or software exist?