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Technology and Distracted Students: A Modest Proposal

A few days ago, news broke in the higher-ed sphere about a new paper in the Educational Psychology Review, “How Much Mightier Is the Pen Than the Keyboard for Note-Taking? A Replication and Extension of Mueller and Oppenheimer (2014),” which seemed to undercut a study that’s become the go-to for those in favor of unilateral technology bans in the college classroom. The Mueller and Oppenheimer paper  purported to show students who took class notes in longhand performed better[1] than those who used laptops. But this new paper–authored by Kayla Morehead, John Dunlosky, and Katherine A. Rawson–could not replicate those findings, even when they extended the study to students who used other devices or those who took no notes at all. There were no statistically-significant differences in test scores among these groups, the authors point out, which means “concluding which method is superior for improving the functions of note-taking seems premature.”

You might think that this important evidence-based caveat might put the brakes on the pro-laptop-ban argument. But, dear reader, you’d be wrong

Look: we know that students get distracted, dammit, and sweeping technology bans remain the best answer to the dilemma. It’s a well-established fact that devices distract students so much that we’re better off keeping them out of class altogether. Students spending the entire lecture period on eBay and YouTube are not only interfering with their own learning, they’re disrupting the learning of students seated around them. We don’t need research to tell us that distracted students don’t learn effectively (though it does indeed suggest exactly that,[2] to be sure). And since “distraction” equals “poor learning outcomes,” let’s prevent the things causing those distractions, and keep digital devices from entering our classrooms. I’m all in favor of successful student learning, and this seems like inexorable logic. Now, you might ask if a bunch of articles relying only upon anecdotal data and the same study that’s now been called into question is a legitimate case for unilateral pedagogical decision. As an academic with over twenty years of classroom teaching, I’m certain these conclusions hold true for Today’s Students™, and I know it’s true because I had a few students in my survey course who used their laptops to go on Facebook that one time while I was lecturing about the Hawley-Smoot Tariff, and then they all missed that question on the exam.

Who can be against students learning more effectively, by which I mean scoring higher on exams delivered in contrived studies if we have the means to facilitate doing so? Whose side are you on order or anarchy? Since previous generations of students were all raptly attentive and appropriately docile in our lecture halls, and Kids These Days™ aren’t, we should ask ourselves what’s changed, knowing full well the answer is the internet. If we remove this contagion, the disease of distracted students, staring zombie-like at their screens instead of staring zombie-like at the professor on the stage thirty rows away, will be cured. The only question is why should we stop there? The potential student-distractors in our classrooms are legion. If, in the service of better learning for all, we are going to eliminate distraction, let’s do it right.

Oh, no reason.

Laptops, tablets, and phones are distractors, so my policies, of course, ban these technologies in the classroom. Indeed, technology, as we all know, is a primary culprit when it comes to stealing our students’ attention from where it rightfully belongs. So what other technologies are luring my students, siren-like, away from my scintillating, witty, and painstakingly-crafted-by-the-word lectures? Even if students are taking notes longhand, a quick examination of a section’s worth of class notes will likely show you a wide range of doodle artwork (most of it questionable quality, at best). If the research shows us that multitasking is just another form of student distraction, then we have to conclude that doodling is taking the learners’ attention away from where it properly belongs. So I am banning pencils and pens from my classroom, lest the scourge of doodling prevents my students from achieving successful learning outcomes slightly higher exam scores.

Of course, this type of reflection about the ways in which technology is the bane of attention spans has led me to think about my own use of instructional technology. If a student using a laptop distracts themselves and those around them, then my projecting a computer’s screen on the front wall of my classroom must be doing the same thing, but exponentially. How can my students learn if I have these…computer things so prominently visible? From this point forward, I will no longer enable student distraction; I will stop using slides, images, illustrations, projection, and–to be absolutely sure–outlines, the whiteboard, hand gestures, pastel-coloured shirts, and anything else that might divert students’ attention from my lecture–because that’s where all the important content is.

Since we all know that, given even a scintilla of opportunity, students will automatically disengage from class and do their own thing (evolutionary psychology tells us this is a present-day manifestation of our ancestors’ fight-or-flight response), we have to remain vigilant against the door to distraction opening even a tiny crack. Beginning this semester, I’ve removed one of my chief competitors for students’ undivided attention by teaching only in classrooms without windows. Just as staring at a tiny window with a webpage on it prevents learning from occurring, so to does staring through a larger window at whatever non-class-related material might lay outside.

As I’ve refined my classroom-conduct and technology policies to account for this epidemic of distractors, though, I have come to a startling realization. Maybe we’re going about it all wrong; instead of worrying about what interferes with students’ attention, maybe the problem is attention spans themselves. As several Eminent Tenured White Men have demonstrated, the internet is indeed shrinking the attention spans of college students. If we calculate a constant rate of declining ability to focus and multiply it by the number of years the internet has been a thing, we can’t avoid the harrowing conclusion that most–if not all–of our students are actually in negative numbers when it comes to available attention spans! This makes perfect sense, of course, now that I see things in the broader view. All of the lectures I remember from my own undergraduate experience are ones where I was certainly paying attention, and I am almost 30 years older than my first-year students. I shudder to contemplate all the ability to focus that’s been lost in that three-decade period. It’s a tragedy of immense scope, and it leads me–sadly–to the unavoidable conclusion that the only foolproof way to remove distractions from the classroom is to ban students. It’s regrettable, but if successful learning means doing so free of distraction, I am compelled by this incontrovertible logic to ban devices, writing implements, windows, and students from my learning spaces. Facts don’t care about our feelings, after all.

These hard choices are also necessary ones if we are to provide a completely distraction-free learning environment. Nothing is more distracting than learners themselves, given their innate inability to pay attention and their base proclivities to take any opportunity to disengage from the compelling and erudite lecture I am providing for them. Finally able to unfold in a completely distraction-free space, my lecture on the Hawley-Smoot and Fordney-McCumber Tariffs (they are essential turning points in US financial history, and remarkably understudied, as I detail in the lecture’s extensive discussion of tariff historiography) will finally have the space it deserves. This is the platonic ideal of teaching, then: nothing getting in the way of the essential content I am dispensing. In this regard, the laptop-ban conversation might be the best thing that’s happened to my teaching practice.

The logic, after all, speaks for itself.

  1. [1] Mueller and Oppenheimer defined “perform better” as higher test scores.
  2. [2] Please remember we define learning by test scores or similar metrics.

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