I just read this fascinating article thanks to a link that SCUP sent out to its members a few days ago. The piece, by NYU educator Clay Shirky, explains why a social media expert has banned the use of technology in his own classroom. As architects, much of our work in recent years has been trying to find effective ways to integrate technology into the classroom environment, so it is refreshing to pause for a moment and consider the relationship between effective learning and our human nature with technology. Shirky shows us that device designers and social media providers take advantage of our biological make-up to deliver “can’t ignore” messages – the sounds and visuals that emanate from our iPhones are a constant distraction from concentrated study. This probably isn’t a revelation to any of us, but when Shirky talks about the science that shows how students’ test scores diminish when they are simply within view of another person’s web browsing, we have to pay attention.
The ubiquitous multitasking that occurs in classrooms hit home for me last week when I attended a seminar at the University of Oregon. I sat in the back row and introduced myself as adjunct faculty. The student sitting next to me spent much of the next couple hours browsing on the internet. Sometimes he was looking at sites related to the discussion underway; at other times he appeared to be checking up on his class schedules and other unrelated activities. Elsewhere in the room students were checking messages on their phones with varying degrees of openness. As with Shirky, my attitude when teaching has always been that students are grown-ups and their choices about their participation in class are up to them. But what I have learned is that we can’t always help ourselves – that the tug on our emotions is often stronger than our practical intellect. Thus the siren sound of a new message is too strong of a motivator and distracts us entirely from our surroundings no matter how much we want to be present. Perhaps it would help us all to ban the use of devices during class time. And it’s pretty easy to follow this logic into our work environment too. The question is: Can I bear to turn that whistle off?