Comfortably numb.

10 04 2012

Here’s Mark Bauerlein at Minding the Campus:

[I]nstead of asking 35 students to squeeze into the schedule of the semester and jibe with the manner of teachers who are often harried and unhappy, customize instruction to each enrollee. Therein lies the great advantage of digital tools in higher education, and it’s being implemented best by Western Governors University, the nonprofit online school founded by the governors of 19 U.S. states….

I see no reason why Western Governors University isn’t the future of higher education.

Bauerlein obviously hasn’t read Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together. Otherwise, he would at least acknowledge that there’s another side to the online education debate that values human contact over efficiency and flexibility. They’re fine if every student stays comfortably numb, just like they are outside the classroom.

What’s scariest about Turkle’s book is her documentation of just how often people, especially young people, use technology to keep themselves isolated in their own little worlds. Send a text message and you don’t have to talk. Send an IM and you can people at a distance. Here’s Turkle on the results of such thinking (p. 284):

Kelly has a view of connectivity as something that may assuage our deepest fears-of loneliness, loss, and death. This is the rapture. But connectivity also disrupts our attachments to things that have always sustained us-for example, the value we put on face-to-face human connection.

This reminds me of when I heard the owner of our local coffee chain talk about his expectations for new employees. He’s had to fire plenty of them for texting during work. Your job is to make connections with the people right in front of you so that they’ll come back and sip again, yet you can’t put down your phone? Somebody should have taught them how to stay off their phones while they were in college.

There’s a certain appeal to not having to concentrate on the people right in front of your face, especially if you don’t like them. However, that’s life. College is still supposed to prepare students for life, right? Did I miss a memo?

As important as the Internet is these days, nobody’s life is spent entirely online, no matter how much some people would like that. Here’s Turkle again (p. 16):

In interviews with young and old, I find people genuinely terrified about being cut off from the “grid.” People say the loss of a cell phone can “feel like a death.” One television producer in her mid-forties tells me that without her smartphone, “I felt like I had lost my mind.” Whether or not our devices are in use, without them we feel disconnected, adrift. A danger even to ourselves, we insist on the right to send text messages while driving our cars, and object to rules that would limit the practice.

On the scale of distractions, your computer (if anyone needs reminding) is your phone on steroids. Yet Mark Bauerlein wants everyone to go to school onnline? It must be multi-tasking hell, especially if you teach the kinds of required courses that students won’t sign up for voluntarily.

When smart phones started appearing in the laps of my students during lecture, I was convinced that I had become incredibly boring. Only when I heard my colleagues complain louder than I was did I realize that a sea change was occurring. My current strategy, which works OK, is to explain for a good five minutes at the beginning of the semester that I know what you’re doing when you’re peering down in your laps and that phone use in class is not acceptable.

Nevertheless, I’m starting to ponder some sort of authorized experiment where I bring my phone to class and start texting in the middle of lecture just to prove how rude and unprofessional it is. Do you think that would be enough to break the spell?


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4 responses

10 04 2012
Luke Fernandez

See also Nicholas Carr in The Shallows p. 130:

“A pair of Cornell researchers divided a class if students into two groups. One group was allowed to surf the Web while listening to a lecture. A log of their activity showed that they looked at sites related to the lecture’s content but also visited unrelated sites, checked their e-mail, went shopping, watched videos, and did all the other things that people do online. The second group heard the identical lecture but had to keep their laptops shut. Immediately afterward, both groups took a test measuring how well they could recall the information from the lecture. The surfers, the researchers report, “performed significantly poorer on immediate measures of memory for the to-be-learned content.” It didn’t matter, moreover, whetrher they surfed information related to the lecture or completely unrelated content – they all performed poorly. When the reseachers repeated the experiment with another class, the results were the same.”

10 04 2012
uccshistory

Your lips move, but I can’t hear what you’re saying — new motto for multitasking students.

10 04 2012
sophiejane

I have a colleague (I started to say friend, but I wonder often if that’s the right term, given this behavior) who will often whip out her phone in the middle of a conversation with me. I’m pretty sure she does it to signify that she’s done with me now (hence the wondering). I think that if I whipped out my phone and started texting, she’d be relieved that I had finally adapted to her preferred mode of conversational moderation.

13 04 2012
Why professors are like low-wage workers (even if their wages aren’t particularly low). « More or Less Bunk

[…] Sherry Turkle repeatedly suggests, the Internet is so seductive because it allows you to separate yourself from real people who carry […]

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