Banning Technology in Classrooms: The False Dichotomy and a Boring Call for “All Things in Moderation”

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Clay Shirky recently published an article on his decision to “ban unless required” laptops, tablets, and phones in class because these devices are distracting and multi-tasking is cognitively exhausting for students. Previously, he has allowed such devices in class, noting that his reluctance to ban them was based on the fact that:

when device use went well, it was great. Then there was the competitive aspect — it’s my job to be more interesting than the possible distractions, so a ban felt like cheating. And finally, there’s not wanting to infantilize my students, who are adults, even if young ones — time management is their job, not mine.

But gradually–while he and his courses remained largely the same–the level of distraction posed by these devices increased to the point where he’s decided to not only discourage their use but prohibit them outright.  In addition to his personal experience, he justifies his decision by citing some of the early research on the negative impact of these devices on student learning in class, including on those nearby who aren’t using them.

Shirky’s statement is only the latest in a series of such pronouncements (including this one).  But the novelty of the announcement–and its prima facie credibility–was based on Shirky’s identity as a long-time proponent of, and enthusiast for, the Internet’s possibilities.  In fact, when the Washington Post republished his piece, they used the headline highlighting this angle on the story: “Why a leading professor of new media just banned technology use in class.”

Shirky has long espoused the potential power of the Internet, especially to enable groups to organize without centralized organizations and to tap into the “cognitive surplus” unleashed by the Internet’s participatory culture.  But as others have pointed out, his vision of the liberative potential of the Internet seems inattentive to the stark inequalities that limit such opportunities to those already in relatively privileged social positions.  The title of his best known work on Web 2.0 reflects this tone-deaf feature of his work: Here Comes Everybody.  Really?  “Here Comes A Lot of People” surely, but “Everybody”?  No.  Many people are and will be left out of this techno-enthusiast vision.

In response to Shirky’s piece, my colleague Jon Becker wrote a tongue-in-cheek blog post raising questions about the distracting nature of other “technologies,” including uncomfortable plastic chairs, fluorescent lighting, windows, and the large lecture hall itself.  While I appreciate the humor, for me, the analogies are off the mark.  None of those were designed specifically to attract eyeballs the way that social media platforms and other Internet sites are.  The Internet is a vastly more multi-faceted, engaging, and entertaining technology than a plastic chair.  Further, none of these examples are typically in the control of an individual instructor. We’re talking apples and oranges.

But, analogies aside, Becker raises an important question about what might be going on in the classroom and he advocates for more active, engaging learning—a sort of “promote engagement rather than ban distraction” approach.  From Shirky’s piece, we can’t really tell if he’s tried this…or how large his classes are…or anything, really, about the context in which his policy is being applied.

And that’s a problem.  Shirkey’s blanket “I tried it; it doesn’t work; ban them” approach is a carte blanche justification for anyone doing anything other than incorporating technology.  Why are you clinging to wordy Powerpoints and hour-long lectures as the go-to method of instruction? Now there’s a facile answer: “Even the techno-enthusiasts are banning technology from the classroom.” In the wake of his pronouncement, I fear that banning technology in the classroom (with a syllabus link to Shirkey’s article, perhaps?) will increasingly be the response to student disengagement, rather than doing the hard work of re-evaluating our pedagogical strategies amidst 21st century realities. In my pre-Internet student days people read the newspaper in back of large lecture halls, learning to neatly fold the page subway-style to avoid obvious detection. The distracting nature of newsprint and the engaging writing found in the sports section were hardly the real problems.

Here’s where my usual boring call for “all things in moderation” comes in. We shouldn’t fetishize digital technologies nor the non-digital classroom. Where appropriate, technology can play a significant role in education and should be embraced and celebrated.  Indeed, we should be much more creative in how we attempt to harness the potential of these still-emerging technologies.  But face-to-face discussions, question-and-answer sessions, group exercises, debates, student presentations, and even (brief) lectures, can also be a valuable part of learning.  None of these necessarily require the presence of digital technologies and all of them likely benefit from a technology time-out to facilitate social presence, concentration, and close attention to the here and now.  (Indeed, a growing–if uneven–literature on the value of unplugging speaks to this strategy in various circumstances.)  I’ve never banned tech in the classroom and don’t think I would in the future, but under some circumstances I certainly understand why an instructor would want to do so. Shirky’s right about that.

But Becker’s right to imply that if you’re going to ban technology and ask for close attention, you’d better have a meaningful and worthwhile reason for it.  Stale Powerpoints and didactic lectures will likely be met with mental disengagement whether or not technology is present.  The daydream is a timeless distraction from a dull classroom.

One thought on “Banning Technology in Classrooms: The False Dichotomy and a Boring Call for “All Things in Moderation”

  • October 3, 2014 at 10:31 pm

    Like just about everything, it turns out that radically polarized simplifications aren’t all that useful.

    I feel like this kicks up about every 6 months. It makes me tired. Here is a similar “ban pencils” satire from 2010. I get the frustration at both ends but I’m bored with it.

    It gets even more messed up when I think that k12 programs are paying (hundreds of millions at this point) to provide 1:1 laptop programs. This is a shot from 2009 in a 1:1 laptop program. Note the laptop is closed (and filtered). I’m pretty sure the same thing is happening in Shirkey’s class despite the laptop symptoms being well treated.


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