Saturday, October 11, 2014

In a World Full of Distractions...

I write a "Tiger Tech" newsletter every other week for our staff, and publish it via Smore. The following is a piece I wrote last week. 

I recently read an article from The Washington Post entitled, "Why a leading professor of new media just banned technology use in class." (Link HERE). Like many headlines, this one was a bit misleading, but the content of the article was still thought-provoking.

Clay Shirky is a professor of media studies at New York University, and he's had a "relaxed" approach to devices in the classroom for many years. However, he has noticed that his students are becoming more and more distracted by their devices in recent years. He attributes this to the many social media platforms that compete for student attention while they're working on school-related technology tasks. He states, "Computers are not inherent sources of distraction - they can in fact be powerful engines of focus." However, "...hardware and software is being professionally designed to distract..." Shirky also discusses how these distractions encourage multi-tasking on the part of students, which has been shown to decrease learning in multiple studies.

After reading the headline and beginning of this article, you might expect that Shirky threw up and his hands and banned all technology from his classroom. This is not exactly the case, however. He reports that he has changed his rules for devices from "allowed unless by request" to no device use "unless the the assignment requires it." In other words, students are only using their devices in class if there is a specific learning goal for using that device.

I see our high school students struggling with these same issues. When is an appropriate time for them to check their most recent "Draw Something" picture or visit a messaging service? These programs have notifications, pop-ups, and all sorts of bells and whistles that are constantly crying for their attention. I believe it's part of our role as teachers to help them navigate this world. Shirky states in his article,
I've stopped thinking of students as people who simply make choices about whether to pay attention, and started thinking of them as people trying to pay attention but having to compete with various influences, the largest of which is their own propensity toward involuntary and emotional reaction.
After reading this article, I've been trying to make this more clear for students in my classroom by stating explicitly the appropriate times for...
  • No devices at all.
  • Using devices for a specific classroom task only.
  • Using devices for their choice of activity.
I think there is a time and a place for all of these situations in the classroom, but it's our responsibility to guide students in interpreting the task and environment correctly so they can eventually determine appropriate device use for themselves.
Image"Partial Attention" from Flickr by Marina Noordegraaf. Licensed by Creative Commons.

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