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You’re bringing whiteboard markers to a gun fight

distraction and tech

I’ve talked about this in the past. Both the positive impact of technology on learning and the ability of tech to create distracted students who have difficulty thinking deeply.

I admit I’m still torn. I get it from both sides – many of my colleagues are strong supporters of tech in the classroom, of back channels, of hashtags during instruction.  And I would probably fall on that side of the argument. I do multiple tech integration workshops every semester. I’m planning a Chromebook / GAFE mini-conference. I worked with a group of folks this morning learning how to best use the Adobe Voice iPad app. I’m writing a blog post on a site titled History Tech for heaven’s sake.

But I’m running into more and more classroom teachers who are starting to be wary of the tech. There has been some interesting research about how the misuse of technology can screw with deep thinking skills and how the use of social media can be addictive. And a recent article by Clay Shirkey lays out a pretty persuasive argument for a tech naked learning environment.

So I’m torn.

Shirkey, who is an Associate Arts Professor at the Interactive Telecommunications Program, an Associate Professor in the Journalism Department, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, who was the Edward R. Murrow Visiting Lecturer at Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy and has multiple TED talks, is not just some old fuddy-duddy Luddite, computer hater.

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. And in Why Clay Shirky Banned Laptops, Tablets and Phones from His Classroom, he argues for classrooms free of tech distractions and why he “finally switched from ‘allowed unless by request’ to ‘banned unless required.'”

What’s the problem with multi-tasking?

This effect takes place over more than one time frame — even when multi-tasking doesn’t significantly degrade immediate performance, it can have negative long-term effects on “declarative memory,” the kind of focused recall that lets people characterize and use what they learned from earlier studying. (Multi-tasking thus makes the famous “learned it the day before the test, forgot it the day after” effect even more pernicious.)

People often start multi-tasking because they believe it will help them get more done. Those gains never materialize; instead, efficiency is degraded. However, it provides emotional gratification as a side-effect. (Multi-tasking moves the pleasure of procrastination inside the period of work.) This side-effect is enough to keep people committed to multi-tasking despite worsening the very thing they set out to improve.

And this research is not necessarily about what happens when we use tech. It’s when we try to multitask in general. Pile on the interwebs with its crazy social media and it gets worse.

The form and content of a Facebook update may be almost irresistible, but when combined with a visual alert in your immediate peripheral vision, it is — really, actually, biologically — impossible to resist. Our visual and emotional systems are faster and more powerful than our intellect; we are given to automatic responses when either system receives stimulus, much less both. Asking a student to stay focused while she has alerts on is like asking a chess player to concentrate while rapping their knuckles with a ruler at unpredictable intervals.

So we’ve got research that suggests that the use of certain kinds of tech during instruction makes it harder to learn, not easier. And even if a student tries to avoid the tech and the multitasking, more research documents the impact of “second-hand tech smoke.”

Shirkey’s response? Help students focus by banning tech in the classroom.

This is, for me, the biggest change — not a switch in rules, but a switch in how I see my role. 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.

Some of the students will still opt out, of course, which remains their prerogative and rightly so, but if I want to help the ones who do want to pay attention, I’ve decided it’s time to admit that I’ve brought whiteboard markers to a gun fight and act accordingly.

Our response?

Like I said. I’m torn. I’ve seen the engagement of students and products by students when using technology tools. I’ve see the distractions caused by social media. And the research is hard to ignore.

I like Shirkey’s switch from “allowed unless by request” to “banned unless required.” And I think many K-12 teachers have similar formal or informal instructions for their students. But we need to be intentional about the use of tech tools and software in our classrooms and be aware of both the positive and negative impact of that use on our students. I especially like his call for a collaborative process of creating a focused learning enivornment. Shirkey’s article is a good read – you need to go over and dig through it.

Then come back here and share your thoughts. What is the balance between too much and too little?

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. So true. I remember being shocked when a former coworker I deeply respect showed me that she closed her Outlook for 45 or so minutes at a crack. She used to have so much incoming email that the alerts were paralyzing otherwise. She was right, of course, and I have begun to do it, too, when I really need to focus and think deeply about a task. Thanks for this post!

    September 22, 2014
  2. Hi Glenn, I’d like to respectfully challenge the idea that you pose in your post, that students’ exposure to technology in the class hinders their ability to meaningfully access content by requiring them to multitask. While I can agree that this area of discussion is a hot topic, it is essentially due to its currently evolving nature. How do we as teachers develop a method of use that respects the nature of what technology can provide, while respecting our duty to our students to teach and teach well? The use of technology inherently asks us, adults and students alike, to prioritize the actions we partake in to make meaning. Technology has arguably made it easier to multi-task, and it’s not always a negative consequence. It allows us to manage our commitments and decrease the load on short term and long-term memory. Creating a grocery list on an app and shopping while viewing that app is no different than looking at a written list while shopping. It simply reflects current technology available to us. And more importantly, we must admit that technology is permanent. Whether we choose to instruct our students in or about its usage, they will be exposed to it. Is it not our duty as teachers to expose them to this and guide them? Teachable moments are opportunities to address something as it arises…which we can be guaranteed of happening when using technology in the classroom. Sure, it will be misused in the classroom – but that’s an issue of classroom management, one that can be turned into a teaching opportunity. Further, taking away technology in the class can actually hinder some students’ access to content and display of knowledge. It is well known that students with certain learning disabilities, communication disorders, or physical limitations are better supported through the means of technology. Is it fair to take away the very item that has been the reason for these students’ increased interest and ability in their education? Absolutely not. Is it fair that we have to “police” other students’ misuse of technology? No. But why punish a whole classroom, school, or district of students for the mistakes of such a small percentage? It is our responsibility to best decide how to implement technology. It cannot be a blanket procedure that we change yearly based on the group of students who’ve just graduated our classes. Instead, it’s a daily reflective practice that we need to partake in for the benefit of our students. Technology is a tool that shouldn’t be taken away or its use prevented. We need to be part in determining its appropriate use in the classroom. And the first step to that, is embracing it.

    October 3, 2014
    • glennw #


      I think we’re saying the same thing on different ways. I am not against the idea at all of using technology in the classroom. Phones, mobile devices, online tools are all ways for teachers and students to find and interact with content.

      The concern I have is how we often allow students to misuse these kinds of tools. And it is often a classroom management issue. If students are constantly checking Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or texts in ways that are not aligned with the content or assignment, their brains are having to switch back and forth between assigned task and distraction. This prevents deep thinking and collaboration from happening.

      I like Shirkey’s comment that learning is a shared responsibility – both teacher and student are required to be part of the process. When used appropriately, technology can have a huge and positive impact. But the reverse can also be true. And if we refuse to see both sides of the issue, we’re not preparing students to be successful outside of the classroom.

      Thanks for the comment!


      October 4, 2014

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  1. All about education 09/17/2014 | Musings on education, teaching, lifelong learning and world events

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