Banning Technology is NOT an Answer

Today I read yet another illuminating article about banning technology from classrooms. This time it appears that professors at some  U.S. universities like George Washington University, American University, College of William & Mary, & University of Virginia have decided to ban laptops from their classrooms. (See de Vise, D. March 9, 2010,  “Wide Web of diversions gets laptops evicted from lecture halls”, Washington Post) Apparently if you take a lecture with David Cole @ Georgetown Law you’d better sharpen your pencil and make sure that pen is working because you are not permitted to take notes on your laptop. Why? According to Cole, having a laptop on your desk

… is like putting on every student’s desk, when you walk into class, five different magazines, several television shows, some shopping opportunities and a phone, and saying, ‘Look, if your mind wanders, feel free to pick any of these up and go with it’. (de Vise, 2010)

Seems like a classroom management issue to me–as well as scaffolding of appropriate behaviour. If students are not paying attention to the content in a class, we must ask why–whether it’s writing notes, doodling, etc. Will professors ask for notes after every class as well–proof that no one was goofing off even if it’s low-tech goofing? Are professors collecting all the paper after every class? In fact, are they willing to go back to marking handwritten papers of 800 words or more? A key question for me, is how many of these wandering minds are passing courses when they were using the laptops? How much is just genuine disrespect of a shared learning environment and how much of it is that their full attention is not really required in the situation?

When I work with students in a lab or classroom situation, my goal is always that they complete the requisite tasks or capture the appropriate content I need them to within the established timeframes. While I like to occasionally believe myself the fount of most wisdom (my tongue is firmly in cheek), the truth of the matter is that many of our students enter our class with a large body of knowledge–some of it applicable to our course relevant topics at hand. Also, some of our students may be better served by finding tutorials or content on the topic or skill others have posted–just because it may make more sense to them versus the way we have chosen to present the material. Some of my students choose to do their work from home, some come in every class and still others oscillate between the two. Clearly they know that if they come into class they get “extras” from me that are not found in my online content–some just like the face-time with me (or at least I like to think so–wink). Many of my online attendees also find their own extras–some that I’ve later  incorporated into my teaching when they’ve chosen to share. Technology can make us more productive–allow educators to provide a larger number of paths to arrive at a determined destination–and students a wider range of ways to manifest that learning.

Now, that’s not say technology can’t provide endless ways to waste time. I generally tell my students, if you can Facebook, tweet, etc. and still meet the class objectives–more power to you; however, do not expect me to back track or review content that you have missed by multitasking and losing focus. This would merely waste my time, your time, and that of your fellow classmates who have been paying attention. Also, don’t ask your seatmates to catch you up either, as again it is unfair to ask them to shoulder the burden for your lack of focus. We must always be aware that a classroom is a collaborative space for learning. Another point I drive home is that whatever you’re doing–using technology or eating chips during class–it cannot detract from the learning environment of others. I once took a course where I diligently typed all my class notes–no wandering at all. In discussion with my seatmates, one revealed that my typing was loud and could be distracting. I readily moved to a location where I did not bother anyone because as a tactile learner those notes were key to my processing of the class content and experience.  For some, pencils busily scratching on paper can be annoying–we need to be aware. That said, at the end of the day, if you can meet the objectives required and be respectful of the collaborative learning environment–who am I to complain about your process–though I can comment on your sources, the validity of your content & the quality of your work.

That said, one of the sad effects of banning technology from schools K-post secondary, is that appropriate behaviour–how to modify our uses in specific contexts to leverage technology as a learning tool rather than pure entertainment–is rarely if ever taught whether formally or informally. I remember when cellphones emerged, how frequently presenters had to scaffold their professional audience’s behaviour by reminding them to put their ringers to vibrate and to move into hallways if they absolutely had to take/make a call during a session so as not to disturb others. We rarely do that any more–though for some this etiquette still has not be learned. As professionals and technological elders, we need to build etiquette with various technologies and communicate those expectations explicitly and implicitly to allow those who educationally benefit from technologies to continue to use them respectfully. As it stands, our education systems are churning out students who enter workplaces with virtually no scaffolding regarding productive/workplace uses of technology and personal uses of technology–and these workplaces are complaining.

Professors might feel that this isn’t their job–and to a certain extent they would be right. The expectation is that students entering university have a certain scholastic/academic maturity. The sad fact is, however, that while professors and universities may expect students to have learned etiquette & have already scaffolded behaviour around technology, with most K-12 schools banning access to hardware, software and internet access left, right and centre, students have little opportunity to learn these things.

In fact, rarely are students provided opportunities to use technology in a self-actualizing manner that embeds the true meaning of “appropriate use”. Think about how we teach children to cross the street: we carry them across, we hold hands as they cross, we practice the requisite behaviours, we watch from the side, until unbelievably our child has internalized all that’s necessary to safely cross the street unaided & unsupervised. In most schools, students are either in a firmly controlled computer/internet environment–be it classroom or lab–or they have no access–or they are out of school with little supervision and total access. So where  is the process to scaffold the behaviour for seamless/continuous access to technology so that students can reach a level of appropriate self-moderated technology use? I have yet to see it.

Add to this situation that many educators–including professors–are not fluent enough with technology to understand it & incorporate it into their pedagogy & practice (in fact there are still a body of educators that fear and avoid it) and it’s no wonder we’ve arrived at such a technological impasse.  Education, etiquette and behavioural scaffolding that support appropriate self-moderation in the use of technology by students are key steps that will move us forward in our teaching and learning. Banning technology from classrooms and campuses is not the answer and in fact perpetuates the problem.

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2 Responses to Banning Technology is NOT an Answer

  1. Lisa Read says:

    Great post, Julie. I read the article too, and I keep coming back to the same thing (and you hinted at it as well) Are we going to ban doodling? Sipping water? Filing nails? Making eye-contact with other learners? Looking out the window? Windows? etc…..It is the lecturer’s job to be engaging, and it is the learner’s job to be engaged. Banning all distractions is not going to make them care more, and if we don’t teach them how to use technology appropriately, who will?

  2. Yijie Qu says:

    agree, driving is risky, will we stop driving? Of course not. We can take some driving lessons, during lessons, we might learn risky behaviours of driving, like U turn in the busy intersection, right turn without shoulder check can be deadly.

    Same as technology in the classroom, it is behaviour problem. When educators see unfamiliar technologies, we might tend to think they are evil. This is just normal human evolution. Maybe 100 years from now, historian studies us; this could be a good case study.

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