Clay Shirky wrote an interesting piece about how he has now shifted his teaching style from a “Laptops always” policy to a “Leave your devices at home” policy entitled "Why I Just Asked My Students to Put Their Laptops Away." Now Clay, for my gentle readers who do not know him is no ed tech slouch. He is the author of such works as “Here Comes Everyone" a seminal work on how the internet has changed group dynamics and interactions. He is oft quoted by ed tech speakers at conferences and is generally regarded as a guru on all things relating to how students interact with the internet. So it is a big deal when he says something like he has decided to have his students put away their laptops.
(Clay Shirky’s worst nightmare class)
As Clay puts it the reason he asked his students to put away their laptops was directly related to the level of distraction on the screen:
"The level of distraction in my classes seemed to grow, even though it was the same professor and largely the same set of topics, taught to a group of students selected using roughly the same criteria every year. The change seemed to correlate more with the rising ubiquity and utility of the devices themselves, rather than any change in me, the students, or the rest of the classroom encounter."
He goes on to describe how students cannot “multitask” nor can they resist the siren call of the pop-up in the computer’s notification center, telling the user that Aunt Mary has just posted a new cupcake recipe on Pinterest. (Note: I think neuroscientists would argue that no one can actually multitask. You can switch between tasks rapidly, but you cannot carry on multiple tasks at a time.)
Okay, so here is a guy in a post secondary setting complaining that his students cannot stay on task.
Yikes. Where have we hear this story before? Oh yeah, Dan Willingham made a stink awhile back on the same topic. He lamented that whatever was on the computer was so much more interesting than what was in his lectures. And that was from a brain guy, who should know more than ANYONE how to make something more interesting than a computer screen.
"I think the problem is different w/ laptops because the alternative to whatever is happening in class is so appealing to students.”
After reading this, I couldn’t help but think that this was AGAIN more of a classroom management issue than anything else.
Whenever I hear folks in post secondary complain about how students are not paying attention to them, I immediately ask myself what is it abut the class that is causing students to NOT pay attention.
By his own admission Shirky is not changing up his delivery: “…even though it was the same professor and largely the same set of topics, taught to a group of students selected using roughly the same criteria every year.”
Same class, same criteria, same topics…same same same.
So, we have a professor that by his own admission hasn’t changed his style in years.
We have a professor, that by his own admission has little or no classroom management skills.
Is there some kind of way that a really smart college professor could control his class use of digital devices besides a draconian putting all the laptops away?
Look at what we are using in our district: A simple stop light:
Red: Put it away
Yellow: Wait for Permission
Green: Use it
We have Kindergarten teachers that are using this. Why can’t a college professor do it?
It really is that simple. Is there something that post secondary education that they cannot control their classes? Set some expectations up front. Dang. Go over to your University’s College of Education and learn some classroom management skills.
I am a professor and my lectures are less interesting than Aunt Mary’s cupcake recipe. REALLY? Shouldn’t that be some kind of red flag about the delivery of the content?
Wes Fryer responded to Willingham, and I think it applies to Shirky as well:
“How about using our scarce and precious face-to-face time with students to have them DO something with their digital technologies instead of just asking them to sit there passively and listen and take notes?”
Really, if you are lecturing to students, you really are not setting very high expectations for them in class anyway.
Maybe you are getting what you deserve.