Cellphones vs. Education
Joelle Renstrom writes in Aeon:
ave a rule about cellphones in class: if one disrupts us by ringing, vibrating or sounding an alarm, the owner has to sing a song or bust some dance moves in front of the class. At first, this provision in the syllabus elicits snickers, but it’s no laughing matter. You need to be able to turn off your phones and pay attention, I say. On the first day of class, they shut off their phones. But it doesn’t stay that way.
While my students – undergraduates at Boston University who are taking classes on writing and research – agree that there’s a problem if they can’t go 50 minutes without checking their phones, few of them can resist, despite knowing that this is my biggest pet peeve. A University of Nebraska-Lincolnstudy indicates that 80 per cent of college students send text messages during class. Nearly 100 per cent of them text before and after class. In the minutes before class – the ones I used to spend shooting the breeze with students about TV shows, sports or what they did over the weekend – we now sit in technologically-induced silence. Students rarely even talk to each other anymore. Gone are the days when they gabbed about the impossible chemistry midterm they just took or the quality of the food at the dining halls. Around the 30-minute mark in class, their hands inch toward their backpacks or into their pockets, fingers feeling around for the buttons as though their mere shape offers comfort. When I end class, they whip out their phones with a collective sigh of relief, as though they’ve all just been allowed to go to the bathroom after having to hold it all day.
Even when my students stash their cellphones, my classes look like an Apple commercial – faces hide behind screens embossed with the same famous fruit. I have no delusions that they’re taking notes for class or referencing that day’s reading. A University of Waterloo professor who put a postgraduate at the back of his lecture hall to observe his students learned that 85 per cent of them did something unrelated to class on their laptops; a Cornell University study confirms that most students engage in ‘high-tech “doodling”’ and communication during class. One might think that the whopping $65,000 cost of attending Boston University for a year would provide ample reason to maintain focus during class, but one would be wrong.
Even students who take notes on their laptops miss out. A study from Princeton University shows that we process information better when taking notes by hand because writing is slower than typing (an argument often spun in favour of laptops), which helps students learn and retain the material. Similarly, people better comprehend what they’re reading if it’s on paper rather than on the screen. In a study from the University of Stavanger in Norway, readers on Kindle struggled to remember plot details in comparison with those who read printed books, perhaps because the physical act of turning the pages helps our memories encode the words.Another study revealed comprehension loss for subjects reading PDF versions of texts. Such findings have caused professors to ban computers in the classroom, which is something I used to do but can’t any more.
An increasing number of students present me with documentation from the student disabilities office that entitles them to use a laptop to take notes. If students see a few classmates with laptops, they inevitably start using theirs too. I can’t tell them that only a couple people are sanctioned to use the computers because of learning or cognitive difficulties without infringing on the students’ privacy, so I try instead to encourage students to take notes by hand and I ask to see their faces, not their Apples.
In an effort to save my students exorbitant coursepack fees, I used to photocopy course readings. But when my department clamped down on copier use, I scanned the articles and put them online, which meant I had to allow students to open their laptops during discussions. On the one hand, they’re adults – if they want to go to shop for shoes on the Zappos website or look at celebrities’ Instagram accounts during class, they’ll have to deal with the consequences. But our discussions suffer, which makes my job harder. When reading on screens, students don’t annotate or reread. They get glassy-eyed, zone out, and then struggle to find quotes they only vaguely remember when it comes time to write the paper. The endless opportunities for distraction also mean that they miss other aspects of class, including important instructions.
That’s when they come to me and we have some version of the following conversation:
Student: ‘I have no idea what’s going on.’
Me: ‘What do you mean “no idea”? The assignment sheet details all the requirements, we’ve reviewed them in class, and we’ve read example essays. What exactly are you having trouble understanding?’
Student: ‘I don’t know… everything?’
I used to jump to the conclusion that students with whom I had such interactions were inherently flawed, academic lost causes. But that’s a reductive explanation, and doesn’t get at the heart of the problem; it’s not just that they have trouble paying attention or are distracted by their phones or laptops in the classroom. The problem is their use of technology in general. Technology demands a significant amount of time and attention and has conditioned them to not question it. It takes up more and more of their bandwidth, and the net effect is lobotomising.
onsumed by technology that they cannot bear to disable or ignore, my students lose awareness of what’s going on around them. They don’t know what they’ve missed – often, they don’t know that they’ve missed anything. They’re still accountable for it, but such mindlessness has become an epidemic: a study from the Ohio State University found that walking while texting has caused a significant rise in injuries. In Chongqing in China, sidewalks contain a special lane for people who can’t be bothered to look up from their phones. And in the German city of Augsburg, there are traffic signals on the ground for people who would otherwise endanger themselves by failing to notice red lights.
Part of the reason people can’t seem to look up from their phones is that we’ve convinced ourselves we’re multitasking, rather than failing to focus (like the way I toggle between various browser tabs and apps even as I write this). A California State University study monitored middle-, high-school and college students who had been instructed to research something important for 15 minutes. Two minutes in, students’ focus started to wane as they checked messages, texts and various websites. The average student lasted six minutes before caving to the temptation to engage in social media. Despite being watched, students spent only approximately 65 per cent of the allotted time studying. Given that most students spend far longer than 15 minutes trying to do coursework, it’s easy to see how little gets done, and how checking messages or opening up another browser tab would be increasingly difficult to resist, especially if we tell ourselves it’s related to work or study. . .
I actually have been pondering this general phenomenon—how cellphone messaging, laptop computers, and the like are changing human culture. I was thinking that people in general no longer seem able to immerse themselves in a long novel, losing track of time because they are so involved with the story. I imagine that few today read (say) War and Peace and the reason is simply its length and the amount of time it takes.
Stephen Covey in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People talks about the difference between “urgent” and “important.” Some important things are indeed urgent, but many urgent things are not. If your phone is ringing, then there is a sense or urgency—you must take the call—but often the call is not important. But those urgent unimportant can crwod out the non-urgent important: the very things that pay off over time.
The situation seems easier to understand if you look at it as the evolution of memes in response to natural selection. Success for a meme means that it propagates widely and exploits its environment (our attention) better than competing memes. The Internet is a rich environment for memes—they can easily and quickly be passed from person to person and they can evolve quickly. Moreover, by demanding our time and attention they crowd out memes that do not capture out time and attention so well: a dozen text messages every hour or two pretty much triumphs over War and Peace in terms of one’s attention.
Read that and think about what you see our current cultural life in terms of the struggle of memes to survive and you’ll see how quickly memes evolve. And memes evolve to ensure their own survival: what happens to their (human) hosts is not so important—cf. Richard Dawkins’s book The Selfish Gene.