Moving from the 17th century to the 21st.

Last semester there were two courses where the instructors, on the very first day of class, told us in no uncertain terms, “NO COMPUTER/TELEPHONE USE IN CLASS.”

We were NOT supposed to hide behind our laptop, not even to look up a word (you were supposed to ask the professor if you didn’t understand something on the grounds that if you didn’t know, there was probably someone else that didn’t either). One even said that if caught, the student would be excused from the class for the day.

No  emailing or texting, Tweeting , Facebook, surfing, or answering phones during class. You will   be asked to leave the class that day  if engaging in those activities.

To my knowledge, students respected this (as much as I could tell: I usually sat in the front of the class, so I didn’t see what was going on. But ALL the students were pretty much involved in these classes.) Laptops were only used to bring up the readings required, and on a few occasions to consult Wikipedia (which would be shared with the class). Anyone forgetting to set their phone to silent was supposed to bring a cake the next week (although this was never actually enforced the two times a phone DID go off).

Both professors (they are in cahoots, I’m sure) gave us the following in their first-day handout:

 As  Cara A. Finnegan, Associate Professor of Communications at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign writes:

 In recent years the saturation of cell phones, text messaging, and laptops has produced something I call the problem of divided attention. A March 25, 2008 article in the New York Times summarized recent studies of productivity in business settings. Researchers found that after responding to email or text messages, it took people more than 15 minutes to refocus on the “serious mental tasks” they had been performing before the interruption. Other research has shown that when people attempt to perform two tasks at once (e.g., following what’s happening in class while checking text messages), the brain literally cannot do it. The brain has got to abandon one of the tasks in order effectively to accomplish the other. Hidden behind all the hype about multi-tasking, then, is this sad truth: it can actually make you slower and dumber. For this reason alone you should seek to avoid the problem of divided attention when you are in class.

But there’s another, equally important reason: we technology-users often lose our senses when it comes to norms of polite behavior, and the result is that perfectly lovely people become unbelievably rude. …  Recent studies also  suggest that students who bring laptops to class  perform worse (on average) than their non-laptop using peers, and are much less likely to pay attention in class. Laptops can also be a distraction for other students and the professor.”

This semester I am taking a seminar course with approximately 22 students, most of whom sit at around a large U-shaped table formation. I have noticed that there are a number of students who spend a good portion of the 4-lesson period behind an open laptop. The student who sat on my left this week, for example, seemed to be working on some letter writing. Because it was in a language I can’t read, it COULD have been notes, but the format suggested otherwise: there were also various non-class-issue windows open on the screen. This student did participate in some discussion, though, so I’ll give the benefit of the doubt.

Across the room, two other students had their screens up and were VERY quiet in class. What were they doing?  I have noticed another student who has been continuously engaged in her computer screen: the first class, she was doing some kind of architectural stuff (designing her apartment?), another time I sat near her, it seemed she was working on a paper. Anytime I looked toward her, I could see she was deeply involved in whatever was going on on her screen.

The last lesson, I sat next to a student who spent the entire time checking out stuff on Facebook, registering for some flying lessons (or flying experience thing), checking out a wedding venue, and I don’t know what else. I am so well-informed on her goings-on because she sat on my right, the direction I had to turn to look at the front, so I couldn’t avoid seeing her computer pages flying. I found it VERY distracting, and I know it threw me off the discussion once or twice. It seemed that part of the time she was in some teacher’s forum! She’s a teacher and this is what she does in class? Does she let her students do the same thing? I’d wager not! There were a few times when she actually had her eyes directed at the instructor. That was when she was crocheting a kippah.

Of the 22 students, I would say that about 10 are very active participants (I include myself), and another 3-4 are paying attention but are quiet souls. Frankly, I don’t care if someone takes up class space and gets nothing out of the course. There ARE those who come for the piece of paper and don’t care about the education. However, when I sit next to Facebook and party invitation designs flashing on the screen next to me, I am distracted and lose my train of thought.

What should I do? Any ideas?



One Response to “Distractions!”

  1. eleanorio Says:

    I have this same issue when I am in a restaurant or bar that has televisions on showing sporting events. Even though I have no desire to watch them, my eyes are continually drawn to the moving pictures on the screens. I hate it! Instead of looking at my dinner companion, I am watching golf or hockey. The worst was when I was in the line of view of a boxing match and could not turn away while some poor sap was beaten to a bloody pulp by some other hulking pugilist. I can’t very well go to the management and tell them to turn off the TVs. The best I can do is find a seat where I cannot see them for the most part. In a classroom situation, you could contrive to arrive early and get a seat on the edge so at most only one distraction can sit next to you. Alternatively, perhaps you could mention to your neighbour that her computing distracts you and could she close it till after class. Otherwise, I got nothing’.

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