Friday, June 17, 2011

Attention seekers

There's an recent article in Times Higher Education that raises an important issue but could lead to people making the wrong conclusions. The article, US unplugged: manifold benefits of disconnected learning, discusses the problem of students using laptops and mobiles in class and as a result not being able to concentrate on what the teacher is saying. I've written on this topic many times and am worried that this sort of article will produce knee-jerk reactions like banning technology in class or give the tech-skeptics justification to remain in their shells.

The article tells of research showing that students can concentrate better if they are tech free and evidently some lecturers are banning computers and mobiles in class. I agree that the distractions of the net are sometimes simply too tempting and that it can be extremely frustrating trying to teach a group who are all staring into their screens. However we should not just believe that this behaviour is restricted to students. We older adults are just as bad in my opinion - just look around you the next time you attend a conference.

The trouble with banning technology is that it doesn't address the problem. If they weren't checking Facebook they'd be gazing out of the window, doodling, reading a newspaper. All the things we did during boring lectures in the seventies. People who aren't engaged are easily distracted and logically if the classes are stimulating the distractors will be less tempting.

However I realize that even the most engaging subject matter and enthusiastic teacher can have difficulties reaching students hiding behind their screens. The skill of paying attention needs to be discussed in class. When should you unplug the tech and concentrate on the people in this room right now. You don't ban technology but you need to discuss a framework for its use. As Howard Rheingold has written so often we need to reteach attention. We need to develop the skill to know when to switch off devices and concentrate and when to switch on. You go online to network, search for information and collaborate but when you're discussing or brainstorming in a face-to-face group you need to concentrate on that interaction. We all need to know when to go unplugged, both students and teachers.

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