The following article speaks about multi-tasking and the downsides of 21st century learning. The author, Sherry Turkle, speaks about her students' need to be digitally connected. Clearly, this is a challenge for educators. Is this a challenge for parents? Do you think there are downsides of 21st century learning? I am curious as to your on topic responses.
In this Chronicle of Higher Education article, MIT professor Sherry Turkle describes how a few students in a 20-person seminar asked to see her halfway through the semester and confessed that they were texting in class. At a subsequent class meeting, Turkle had the whole group discuss the issue, and several other students admitted that they couldn’t stop themselves from texting, even in such an intimate and positive classroom environment. They spoke of constant connection as “a necessity,” says Turkle. “For some, three minutes was too long to go without checking their phones. They wanted to see who was in touch with them, a comfort in itself.”
Students decided to try doing without any devices in class, with a short break to check for messages and e-mails. “For me,” says Turkle, “something shifted. Conversations became more relaxed and cohesive. Students finished their thoughts, unrushed. They seemed more present and able to be in an uninterrupted conversation. When they were not tempted by their phones, the students told me, they felt more in control of their attention. With phones in hand, they felt control slip away.” How ironic, since these devices are supposed to give us more control!
As Turkle analyzed her students’ need to be digitally connected during class, she identified several triggers. One was a moment of boredom, another was a friend reaching out to them (bzzz). Once they were in the “circle of apps,” even a highly engaging class couldn’t compete. In addition, she says, “Distraction is contagious.” Seeing a classmate checking e-mail or shopping on Amazon conveys that the class is not going well and everyone has permission to check out. “Despite research that shows that multitasking is bad for learning,” says Turkle, “the myth of the moment is that multitasking is a good idea. We are not inclined to let this myth die because multitasking feels good.”
Some believe that device-driven multitasking is like being addicted to heroin. For people who think of it this way, says Turkle, “It is as though they are facing something that is by definition more powerful than they could ever be. Resistance seems futile.” That’s why a number of educators accommodate students’ craving for “hyper attention” by jazzing up their PowerPoint presentations and encouraging “backchanneling” (students type a running digital commentary of comments during a presentation) and “Google jockeying” (students search the Internet for images, examples, definitions, or opposing views to display on the screens). Katherine Hayles of Duke University says educators have no choice but to adapt to the new-age sensibility, and believes that “deep attention” is passé. “Change the students to fit the educational environment,” she says, “or change that environment to fit the students.”
The problem, says Turkle, is that, “When you train your brain to multitask as your default approach – when you choose hyper attention – you won’t be able to focus even when you want to. You’re going to have trouble sitting and listening to your children tell you about their day in school. You’re going to have trouble sitting in a meeting and listening to your colleagues. Their narrative will seem painfully slow. Just as middle-school children don’t acquire the skills for conversation because they lack practice, university students lose the capacity to sit in a class and follow a complex argument.”
Turkle says corporate human-resources officers describe their new hires as not very good at talking in business meetings. College graduates say the same thing about themselves. They are anxious about the give-and-take of in-person interaction. And yet they attend fewer and fewer in-person classes, miss the opportunity to chat with instructors after classes, seldom take advantage of instructors’ office hours, and prefer e-mail and texting to face-to-face conversation. When will they learn those vital skills?
Turkle finds that heroin analogy unhelpful; after all, there are plenty of positive (and legal) benefits to 21st-century connectivity. “Instead of thinking about addiction,” she says, “it makes more sense to explore how we are vulnerable to certain things that technology offers. The path forward is to learn more about our vulnerabilities and design around them. To do that, we have to clarify our purpose. In education, learning is the focus, and we know that multitasking is not helpful. So it’s up to us to actively choose unitasking… If the brain is plastic, then at any age it can be set to work on deep attention. So if we decide that deep attention is a value, we can cultivate it.”
Turkle describes how Carol Steiker, a professor at Harvard Law School, noticed that her students were furiously typing on their laptops in class, creating something close to a transcript of what she was saying – basically becoming court stenographers. “They sometimes seemed annoyed if you called on them because it broke up their transcriptions,” she says. “If you are trying to write a transcript of class, class participation takes you away from your job.” So Steiker decided to allow no technology in her classes, requiring students to take notes by hand. The result? “Students seem less annoyed when you call on them,” she reports. Now they are better listeners, discussions have improved, and classes are more successful.
Turkle is also interested in what’s happening with MOOCs (massive open online courses) after the initial burst of enthusiasm a few years ago. It turns out that the most important factor in helping students succeed is human contact with the instructor. “Since students struggle with conversation, it makes sense to engage them in it,” she says. “Conversations teach attention, how to listen, how to be in a relationship. Educational technology, with all its bells and whistles, only highlights the simple power of conversation… If you ask people where their love for learning comes from they usually talk about an inspiring teacher. The most powerful learning takes place in a relationship. What kind of relationship can you form with a professor who is lecturing in the little square on the screen?”
“The lecture is the easiest form of in-person pedagogy to criticize,” Turkle concedes. “It is the oldest form of instruction. It is the only one most likely to involve a passive student. It is the easiest to caricature, as the teacher might be passive as well, perhaps reading notes that were written years ago. But for all its flaws, the lecture has a lot going for it. It is a place where students come together, on good days and bad, and form a small community. As in any live performance, anything can happen. An audience is present; the room is engaged… Ideally college classrooms are places where students stand up and defend their ideas in real time. They learn from speaking and from listening… That doesn’t happen if you take your class alone in your room. The value of attending live lectures is a bit like the value of doing fieldwork: In fieldwork, there can be dry spells, but you learn to read people in real time. You share a bit of road with those around you, and you come to understand how a group thinks. And you learn the rewards of patience: you have followed arguments as they unfold. If you are lucky, you learn that life repays close, focused attention… What makes the greatest impression in a college education is learning how to think like someone else, appreciating an intellectual personality, and thinking about what it might mean to have one of your own.”
“Talk to Me: How to Teach in an Age of Distraction” by Sherry Turkle in The Chronicle of Higher Education, October 9, 2015 (Vol. LXII, #8, p. B6-B9), no free e-mail link