“I teach theory and practice of social media at NYU, and am an advocate and activist for the free culture movement, so I’m a pretty unlikely candidate for internet censor, but I have just asked the students in my fall seminar to refrain from using laptops, tablets, and phones in class.”
You’ve probably already read the opening of Clay Shirky’s important Medium essay “Why I Just Asked My Students To Put Their Laptops Away,” but it’s still worth a call-out. I think that in addition to being a well-written and -argued piece, it’s an important data-point in a conversation taking place in schools— mainly involving teachers and tech advocates, but also involving students too— about how we should think about personal information technology in the classroom, and what we’re trying to get out of having classrooms be more technology-intensive.
Shirky lays out his reasons for his new policy thus:
- Multitasking, especially in the classroom, is “bad for the quality of cognitive work, and is especially punishing of the kind of cognitive work we ask of college students."
- Companies are competing hard for students’ attention. “The industry has committed itself to an arms race for my students’ attention, and if it’s me against Facebook and Apple, I lose."
- Technology-enhanced distraction is a social contagion. “Allowing laptop use in class is like allowing boombox use in class — it lets each person choose whether to degrade the experience of those around them."
There are two things I love about this essay. The first is Shirky's argument that a “no devices” policy pits him against his students, but rather that it puts them all on the same side:
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 towards involuntary and emotional reaction….
Regarding teaching as a shared struggle changes the nature of the classroom. It’s not me demanding that they focus — its me and them working together to help defend their precious focus against outside distractions….
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.
It’s easy as the person in charge to take distraction personally, but this more high-minded attitude is one that I think is better for everyone.
The second thing that resonates with me is this: for most students, I would argue, the challenge is no longer to make sure that they’re familiar with technology. Everyone is pretty familiar with technology, and if they’re not, there will be many other opportunities to become familiar with it. What’s in short supply, and what Shirky and other teachers can provide, is a space in which students learn how to focus— not just on the causes of the Civil War, but on anything. Teachers used to be able to take for granted that students knew how to concentrate (though that might be another way of saying that they just left it for students to flounder around and figure it out for themselves). But today, one of the most valuable things you can do as a teacher is to help students see the value of focus, and help them refine their capacity to concentrate.