Just about every week I read articles about how disruptive technology can be in the classroom. No, this time not disruptive in the sense of challenging traditional methods and structures. More like disruptive in the sense of disturbing other people; using cellphones in class, checking Facebook or YouTube during a seminar etc.
One such article is in the Times Higher Education (Mind your manners, not the phone, please) reporting a survey of staff and student attitudes to various classroom disturbances. The list from a staff point of view is not surprising, including students texting and talking on cellphones, coming unprepared to class and showing no interest in the proceedings. Interestingly, most of these are indeed very low-tech and nothing really to do with technology. The basic problem here seems to be a lack of respect for fellow students and teachers and an inability to focus attention when necessary. Maybe too many distracters. However I think this is a general tendency in society as a whole here that is possibly accentuated in the classroom setting. I've been to many meetings and conferences with delegates of all ages busy with totally unrelated activities on their laptops and cellphones.
Of course we have to ensure that what goes on in the classroom is relevant and interactive but even when it is engaging there are still many who are too distracted by background noise to realize what they're missing. Attention is a vital skill that I think must be taught. We've been given so many exciting tools to use that we have forgotten how to simply concentrate on a task and shut off the distracters for a while. I've heard several teachers who have a class discussion around this and agree on implementing "house rules" during class time. Class time can be divided into tech-free time where listening and participating is required and other periods where all devices are on and the focus is on gathering information and resources.
Howard Rheingold is a great source of inspiration and I can't resist including a new video interview with him on the subject of 21st century literacies. He often writes on the need to teach the skill of attention, of being able to focus on one activity and shut out the distractors. Technology is taking the blame today for a lot of basic human failings. Social media give us enormous opportunities to learn and cooperate but we need to focus more efforts on teaching people how to use them responsibly.