Devices everywhere and not a drop of knowledge gained

About once a year, I take a trip with friends to the Smokey Mountains. We rent a cabin and spend a long weekend catching up, and driving the local mountain roads. One of the interesting side effects of the trip is that it’s a long weekend of being nearly totally cut off from the outside world. Our usual cabin and a lot of the Smokey Mountains are out of the range of cell towers.

The number of times while sitting around chatting and a question is asked at least half the group subconsciously grabs for our phones, a handful get the phone out only to make some statement as they remember “oh yea, no signal…” and put the phone away.

The classrooms are much the same, students packed to the gills with devices, all of them active and rarely are they all on the task of education. To stress the difficulties their devices place on education we run discuss the issue of task switching and run an exercise. We have the students draw two lines on their paper, we start a timer and have them write above the first line write “task switching is a thief” and below the upper line write “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20” and then their time of completion. For the second round they have to alternate a letter from the sentence and a number and then time of completion. Inevitably almost everyone’s second time is significantly slower. Even with the evidence of the detriments of trying to multitask in front of them, they still do it. Some become so engrossed in their devices that I can even sit down next to them while they do anything but coursework and they don’t notice.

Having all of the access to information we have with these devices is great, but only if its used responsibility. I frequently see students who are spending class doing anything but paying attention who wind up missing information and asking me to fill them in later. We have tried a number of methods to encourage them to use the devices for class, but some just want to waste their time in class.

4 Replies to “Devices everywhere and not a drop of knowledge gained”

  1. Your introduction to this post was great! While being interesting and relatable (because I’m sure I would be guilty of subconsciously reaching for and checking my out-of-range phone), it proves the need many students have for their phone. But the problem isn’t just the phone or the laptop. Like you said, it’s the idea that students have that they can multitask. That they are actually really good at multitasking. And as your activity proves—is anyone actually really that good at multitasking? OR maybe they don’t even care. I hate to say it, but maybe the thought is not that they’re trying to multitask in class. Maybe it’s that they have better things to do than try to multitask. At least they’re being honest? As the years go by, I’m sure it will be harder than it is now to try to convince students that their technology can be put aside, that it’s actually better that it is put aside for the hour or so that they’re in class.

  2. The irony of the situation – we are all looking for connection and in the meantime disconnecting (that was a pun I did not intend but now that its there we can’t help it) – the fact is that the accessibility of technology and all that comes along with it has taken us away from the things that are actually important, whether that be in life, in education, or at work.

  3. Hi Ethan! Your annual trip to the Smokies to connect with your friends sounds amazing. I can relate to the phenomenon of reaching to check a phone even when you know that there’s no service/you’re trying to take time to disconnect. I’ve been on backpacking trips where I found myself doing the same thing… or on holiday with family and I found myself peeking at my phone to see what my “friends” aka semi-strangers-since-high-school are doing on their holidays…like it even has an impact on my life–except to distract me and pull me away from what’s really important. The struggle is real and I am definitely for disconnecting. I’ve been making changes lately to reflect this–it’s been a boon for my productivity and sense of self.

    So I liked what you said about devices and distraction in the classroom. As a student, I have seen it; as a TA, I have had to deal with it… “Hey guys, I’m about to show you something, I need you to pay attention. …no really, look up at the overhead right now while I demonstrate this procedure.” …yet in under 10 minutes, I am having to back track and do it all again because some of the students chose not to pay attention. It’s a vicious cycle, but tech/devices in the classroom are not likely not going to go away.

    As educators, we can’t be the cell phone police or the laptop police, but we can try to create a culture in the classroom that discourages distraction, multitasking, and disengagement. I imagine that I will have to have “the talk” with students during the first day of class while going over the syllabus. From the start, I plan to set a tone that encourages people to handle their business if something comes up–but to spend the time in my class wisely because 1-they’re paying out the nose for tuition 2-there will be assignments that require them to apply what they’re getting from lecture/class/activities/etc. and 3-they’ll have to convince me they’re engaged and participating and NOT on their devices (or else they’ll get a bad grade —>as much as I hate to admit it, undergraduates respond to grades more than anything else, so I imagine I’ll still be using them as a way to leverage and train young students in professional and scholarly behavior and discourse.) Responsible use of technology is key. I’m so glad you said that. It is the main point that I hope to drive home in my teaching environments.

  4. Ha! I laughed out loud when you said you can sit next to students doing anything but coursework and they wouldn’t notice. I can picture this perfectly. It’s a great image of how multitasking doesn’t work well, especially when our devices are involved. We try so hard to stay connected to our phones while also holding conversations, or listening to lectures. Not only do our eyes glaze over and our expressions become zombie-like, but our actual verbal responses are so obviously disconnected from what’s actually going on. And we think we come across so smoothly, as if no one notices.

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