Academe is abuzz with discussions on how or whether to minimize students’ use of technology during class. Some professors cite studies they say disprove the notion of multitasking; others worry about the students who might be distracted if their classmate logs into his Facebook page during a lecture. I find this discussion disingenuous on several fronts. The real worry here has deep roots.
There was a time when students revered their professor, in awe of her status, intellect, and breadth of experience, but culture has shifted both inside and outside the academy toward more emphasis on student engagement. For better or worse, students now expect their college classes to be interesting and interactive. The days of long lectures are over, and the truth is they never worked for many students anyway, marginalizing all those who couldn’t write notes quickly enough or who couldn’t put the puzzle pieces together outside class on their own. We can debate the value of self-motivation in study habits or whether learning styles exist or not, but what this comes down to is shaping our classrooms around what’s best for students and not what’s easiest or most comfortable for us as instructors.
Speaking of discomfort, let’s return to the technology debate. It’s uncomfortable — no it’s annoying and rude — when a student brazenly texts in front of you when you’re teaching. It’s uncomfortable when a student has his laptop open facing away from you and you can’t see what has him so enamored on the screen. And it’s beyond frustrating when a student who had her headphones on during instruction asks trivial, basic questions about an assignment. I understand these discomforts. I share these discomforts. I don’t, however, believe the answer is hyper-regulation of our students’ use of technology tools. At some point, we have to treat them like adults who make decisions based on their own awareness of how they learn best. Will some of them wake up too late to pass your course? Sure, but that will be a lifelong lesson learned now, where there is a chance for a re-do, rather than later in a boardroom where her family livelihood might be at stake.
Furthermore, are you sure students aren’t listening when they aren’t looking right at you? When my middle child was in fourth grade, his teacher noticed that he was constantly playing with something in his desk and not looking at her while she was teaching. Even though his performance was exemplary, this annoyed her, so she set about trying to push him to conform. At first, she would say, “Sean, pay attention,” but he would look up only briefly and then return to fidgeting with whatever had could touch in his desk. Then, in an effort to help him see that this practice was hurting him, she decided one day to pause when he seemed completely detached for a while and ask him what she had been explaining. He told her verbatim everything she had said. That’s when it dawned on her that visual stimuli distracted him, so he had developed his own method of navigating lectures. I know this story because she called me so that I would be aware and give his future teachers a heads-up. This is a lesson in trusting a student and giving up a bit of power over them.
Finally, look around in your next faculty meeting. Make it a point to be observant of who and how your colleagues are using technology during committee meetings. Monitor your own usage for a while. Would you want your department chair, during faculty meetings, to forbid you from checking for that text message letting you know your wife’s flight landed safely? Would it be demeaning for your dean, during a retreat, to call you out for pulling out your iPad to google curiously about something he’s discussing? Should we establish a university-wide policy of no technology when listening to guest speakers even though you’re passionate about following a hashtag feed discussing Alzheimers or GMOs or a beheading in Syria? We wouldn’t dream of it … because we are adults.