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Technology as a Classroom Distraction for Students

Essay in Inside Higher Education by Mary Flanagan, distinguished professor of digital humanities at Dartmouth College and a fellow of The OpEd Project.

Flanagan concludes with this plea:

We need a culture change to manage our use of technology, to connect when we want to and not because we psychologically depend on it. Enough is enough. We need strategies for unplugging when appropriate to create a culture of listening and of dialogue. Otherwise, $20,000 to $60,000 a year is a hefty entrance fee to an arcade.

While this conclusion resonates with me, as a technophile and college composition teacher I’d like a more nuanced approach to the encroachment of technology on the classroom environment. Sometimes students don’t recognize their reliance on the technology to alleviate boredom, to stay connected and “in the know,” or simply to distract themselves.

I assigned an in-class collaborative writing activity in a networked computer classroom with a student population of working professionals. We used a shared Google Doc as our creative canvas, but I encouraged students in the written and oral instructions to use all affordances offered by the classroom.

The result was absolute silence, less the tapping of keyboard keys.

Rather than using the immediately-available affordance of face-to-face collaboration, students remained entirely engrossed in their technology-mediated collaborative space. I ended up reminding them that the classroom offered additional collaborative opportunities and tools, which prompted several of them to say a metaphorical Homer Simpson “Doh!” when they realized they could have simply talked to one another about the assignment.

While this reinforces Flanagan’s conclusion that students need to unplug from their technologies and they need to understand how and when to unplug, I think students probably also need to understand and recognize their reliance on technology as an issue. This kind of education — that eliminates the need to whisper in a student’s ear that his or her technology use is inappropriate in that context — is an important part of our responsibility as technophiles in the classroom.