Nicholas Carr: Students and their devices

ATN-300InsightaaS: “Back to school” has been on the minds of many people this month, and we thought we’d highlight some thoughts on the use of technology in classes. There isn’t any real dispute as to whether PCs and other personal devices are necessary productivity tools for any form of work in today;s society, including school work – but are devices a help or a hindrance inside the classroom? Internet/IT philosopher Nicholas Carr, whose Rough Type blog is required reading for those (including us!) who are trying to stay current with not just IT developments but their meaning, has a recent post with some interesting thoughts on the matter.

The post featured today begins with a discussion of two professors who have decided to ban laptops and other compute devices from their classes, and includes their rationale for the decisions and their observations regarding the benefit that it provides (or more accurately, the detrimental effects that the absence of the devices avoids). Carr is clearly in sympathy with their position. Still, there are opposing points of view, and Carr highlights some in his post; these include a professor claiming that there is a “parallel between computers and books” (which Carr brands as “fairly silly”), and the argument that adult or near-adult students should be allowed to make decisions for themselves, rather than have these decisions imposed on them (as with a technology ban in the classroom). This seems a more cogent objection, but Carr believes that “software and social media are painstakingly designed to exploit the mind’s natural inclination toward distractedness” (he quotes a professor as saying “if it’s me against Facebook and Apple, I lose”); Carr opines that, “A teacher has an obligation not only to teach but to create, or at least try to create, a classroom atmosphere that is conducive to the work of learning. Ignoring technology’s influence on that atmosphere doesn’t do students any favors.” Despite the fact that Carr is famous for an article entitled “IT Doesn’t Matter,” he’s not a technophobe – but he is a leading thinker on the subject of where and how technology does and does not benefit individuals and society, and his opinion that devices should not be part of the classroom experience is worthy of consideration.

“The practical effects of my decision to allow technology use in class grew worse over time,” writes Clay Shirky in explaining why he’s decided to ban laptops, smartphones, and tablets from the classes he teaches at NYU. “The level of distraction in my classes seemed to grow, even though it was the same professor and largely the same set of topics, taught to a group of students selected using roughly the same criteria every year. The change seemed to correlate more with the rising ubiquity and utility of the devices themselves, rather than any change in me, the students, or the rest of the classroom encounter.”

When students put away their devices, Shirky continues, “it’s as if someone has let fresh air into the room. The conversation brightens, [and] there is a sense of relief from many of the students. Multi-tasking is cognitively exhausting”Š–”Šwhen we do it by choice, being asked to stop can come as a welcome change.”

It’s been more than ten years now since Cornell’s Helene Hembrooke and Geri Gay published their famous “The Laptop and the Lecture” study, which documented how laptop use reduces students’ retention of material presented in class.* Since then, the evidence of the cognitive toll that distractions, interruptions, and multitasking inflict on memory and learning has only grown. I surveyed a lot of the evidence in my 2010 book The Shallows, and Shirky details several of the more recent studies. The evidence fits with what educational psychologists have long known: when a person’s cognitive load – the amount of information streaming into working memory – rises beyond a certain, quite low threshold, learning suffers. There’s nothing counterintuitive about this. We’ve all experienced cognitive overload and its debilitating effects.

Earlier this year, Dan Rockmore, a computer scientist at Dartmouth, wrote of his decision to ban laptops and other personal computing devices from his classes…

Click here to read the entire post on Nicholas Carr’s Rough Type blog site


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