The Obstructed Line Between Helping and Distracting

Technology helps us learn. Technology distracts us. They’re both true. I mean, I see it every day in my own life in addition to seeing it in the classroom. Technology distracts us with insignificant things while it should be helping us learn. But isn’t it my fault when these things happen? Shouldn’t I be willing to take responsibility for my own actions? But the temptation, the siren call coming from the bright glow of the screen in front of us, is sometimes just too much.

I can understand the point Clive Thompson makes in Smarter Than You Think, but then again, I also understand exactly what Darren Rosenblum explains in “Leave My Laptops at the Door to My Classroom.”  Last fall, many of our mentors told us GTAs that we should think deeply about our policy on technology in the classroom. It’s a tricky road to navigate for so many reasons. Many conferences want to see research on multimodal pedagogy or technology usage in the classroom. The students in my classroom know way more about technology than I do; few remember what life was like before the iPhone or the iPad. Note taking by hand? Who does that anymore? Why write when I can type faster? In short, I know my students prefer to use technology. They’re way more comfortable with it than I am. I actually still prefer to take notes with a pen and notebook. Maybe my students really do learn better using technology because they are more used it being an every day occurence in education. But as I observed my mentor’s class once a week from where I sat in the back of the classroom, I saw students on Facebook, and I once saw a student buying an actual electric guitar during class time. The thought of students doing this during a class that I would put so much time and effort into scared me. So, I had to think about what I wanted my policy to be. Do I give them the chance to distract themselves? Or do I allow them to take out their laptops in the classroom?

Even now as a grad student in an undergrad seminar course with one of my favorite professors in the English department, I see students on their laptops when we’re discussing a novel that we have in hard copy. These students don’t participate; they don’t speak. What the actual heck are you doing right now? Every once in a while they look up and nod, but then they go back to doing homework for another class or browsing whatever website seems important at the time. Granted, maybe a student could be using the laptop for needed help, and I don’t know it.  I concede this. (I would know it as an instructor in my own classroom.) But for many students, it’s a distraction rather than  an aid. And as I watched instances like the ones I witnessed in the classrooms of my mentor and my professor, I couldn’t help but think that these actions were extremely disrespectful. I’m definitely not perfect either as student, but for the most part, I do try to stay off my laptop when I’m in a class. I would hope my students would do the same for me.

I’m assuming it’s reasons like this that made Rosenblum assume a harsher stance on technology in the classroom. But technology isn’t always a distraction, I will admit. Because I do realize this, I ended up having more of a loose technology policy. Currently, we do use laptops in my classroom. I have in-class writing prompts at the very beginning of class that the students use the discussion board on Canvas to complete. I use a lot of PDF and online readings, and the students use their laptops to pull the readings up  or use their laptops to look at their thoughts on the reading which they turned in as homework. Students can use their laptops on the days when they might have to research a question. Students can use their laptop to record the ideas of their group during out group work session; using the laptop is faster than handwriting in these cases. So, they are beneficial in my classroom.

That being said, if I’m talking, I usually remember to tell them to put their laptops down. If I forget to this, I see a few of them staring intently at their laptop screens, but many do pay attention for the most part. We do heavy amounts of discussion and group work, so they’re not able to not pay attention for the whole class period. Because my class is small, this more casual policy works in my classroom. I might have a different policy if I were an instructor for a class of more than twenty students though. Overall, this is still a tricky road for me to navigate.  There’s a fine line between technology as an aid to students, as a thing that makes our minds better as Thompson argues, and technology as a deterrent to learning as Rosenblum finds it. And unfortunately, the line is most clearly seen from the back of the classroom rather than the front where I stand.


Filed under GEDI F17

4 Responses to The Obstructed Line Between Helping and Distracting

  1. callahanthehokie

    I’m TA’ing in a class now where the instructor also requires the students to put their laptops away. The instructor explained that her rationale is that laptops can be a distraction and interfere with the ability of others to focus. I originally thought there would be some push back from the students, but I see them engage in the class regularly. This class has 50+ students, and while a lot of the class discussion is guided by the same 10 or so students, nearly all the students have engaged in discussions or raised their hands to share thoughts. In a class this size, if laptops were out, I’d bet there would be much less interaction.

  2. Sneha Upadhyaya

    Thank you for the post. I like your idea of letting students use technology in classrooms when required by the course. I agree with Jason as well-to create an interactive environment, sometimes it is better to ask the students to put their laptops away and be more involved in verbal discussions.

  3. Amy Hermundstad

    Thank you for your post! I think you bring up a lot of really great points about advantages and disadvantages to the use of technology and I think it does depend a lot on the class environment. I really appreciate that in Jason’s example, the instructor was transparent and explained the rationale for her choice. I think whether or not you choose to have students use laptops in the classroom, having open and transparent discussions about those choices can make a big difference.

  4. I also liked how you brought up the pros and cons of technology use in the classroom. The classes I’m more used to engineering is a little bit different in that we do a lot more drawings by hand, so the pen/notebook is a must most of the time. We also need to think about whether our course material needs the aid of technology, and if not, perhaps we could leave it out, or find a balance between not using it during class and have students use it to do assignments on their own time. It is indeed a tricky road to navigate, but having that open and transparent discussion about the choices, as Amy said, seems like a good place to start.

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