Tal Gross, a public health professor at Columbia University, has pulled the plug in his classroom. From now on, he announced last week, his students will have to put away all phones, computers and tablets before class begins.
“Since most students can type very quickly, laptops encourage them to copy down nearly everything said in the classroom,” Gross wrote in the Washington Post. “But when students stare at the screen of their laptops, something is lost. The students shift from being intellectuals, listening to one another, to being customer-service representatives, taking down orders. Class is supposed to be a conversation, not an exercise in dictation.”
Distractions in the classroom go beyond the student using the device, Gross notes, pointing to researchers in Canada who found “that laptops in the classroom distracted not only the students who used them, but also students who sat nearby. Meaning, not only do the laptop-using students end up staring at Facebook, but the students behind them do, as well.”
Earlier this fall, Clay Shirky, who teaches social media at New York University, banned technology in his classroom. In doing so, he acknowledged the irony of teaching a social media class that requires laptops and phones to be put away.
He struggled against making the decision for a long time, Shirky wrote at Medium.com.
“Over the years,” Shirky wrote, “I’ve noticed that when I do have a specific reason to ask everyone to set aside their devices (‘Lids down,’ in the parlance of my department), it’s as if someone has let fresh air into the room. The conversation brightens, and more recently, there is a sense of relief from many of the students. Multi-tasking is cognitively exhausting --when we do it by choice, being asked to stop can come as a welcome change.”
Shirky also cites research that suggests multi-tasking is a myth, and that those who think they are multi-tasking are actually flipping back and forth rapidly between tasks.
“For example, if we’re performing a task where we want to watch TV and ignore voices that are coming from, say, our children nearby,” David Weissman, a lead researcher on this issue at the University of Michigan, told NPR, “our frontal region brain may configure the brain to prioritize visual information and dampen down auditory information.”