THIS JUST IN: Distracted students are distracted! Also: sometimes there are things that distract students! And we all know what to do with things that might potentially distract students: BAN THEM! At least that’s what we’re told by the avatars of pedagogical wisdom populating the comment threads below any article talking about students’ use of technology in the classroom.
The most recent example of this silliness came a few days ago, when Inside Higher Ed published a study on students and tablets in the classroom, with a headline that was remarkable in the scope of its overstatement: “Allowing devices in the classroom hurts academic performance, study finds.” And that was all the ban-’em-and-show-’em-how-rigorous-we-are crowd needed. The comments below the article were immediately flooded with smug, self-righteous stories of how a faculty member imposed a unilateral ban on technology and all of his or her students immediately did SO MUCH BETTER. But the sheer amount of raw, uncut, anecdotal and cherry-picked data in the “discussion” was apropos for an article that exhibited the same traits. If you read the details of the study, however, the grandiose claims of the neo-luddites collapse under the weight of its shortcomings. The study was conducted with only three course sections (less than 800 students) at West Point, notable for its atypical (to say the least) student population. The study only pertained to tablets (which the USMA provides to each of its students), and did not look at cell phone use. The claim that the students who didn’t use tablets performed better academically is based upon exam scores, which were only one-third of a standard deviation higher for the non-tablet crowd than the others. Some might see this as a large difference; I do not, and I doubt a majority of statisticians would either. But hey–why let the fact that this was a superficial study conducted with a small sample size of atypical students examining only one type of technology deter you from claiming that all technology in the classroom is bad? This is what people in the psych business call “confirmation bias,” I believe.
More seriously, though, two fatal flaws undermine the study, and the legions like it that purport to show that students plus technology equals inferior academic performance. First, There’s no mention of pedagogy at all. We learn that there were three sections of an economics course, consisting of nearly 800 students. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that they were taught in the large-lecture format. We know that lecture is one of the most ineffective ways to teach, and that student learning increases significantly when it is eschewed in favor of a pedagogy that embraces active learning (see the classic meta-study here). Yet we’re being asked to believe that hundreds of students packed into a lecture hall and subjected to demonstrably ineffective teaching methods aren’t learning because of their device use. That’s a design flaw characteristic of the entire genre of classroom-tech studies. They don’t even acknowledge, much less control for, pedagogy. It’s like seeing a story about someone hit by a car on the way to the farmers’ market and concluding that fresh produce will kill you.
The second flaw is a conflation of learning with quantitative measures of performance. Maybe higher scores on an economics exam signal a deeper learning of course content, but it’s more likely they reflect students’ temporary retention of specific content. We don’t know if actual learning-the ability to retain material over the long term, to apply it to new situations, to make connections with other fields-has taken place. And the superficial assessments-TEST SCORES! GRADE POINT AVERAGES!-we encounter in these types of studies can only hint at whether or not learning is taking place. And that’s not good enough to support the larger implications we’re being told emerge from them.
The problem with both the West Point study and the sweeping bans on technology use it either inspired or affirmed is a refusal to acknowledge that there are a lot of moving parts when it comes to student learning. In fact, I’m skeptical that there are any independent variables in the process at all. If students in a large lecture course with no laptop or device policies are doing poorly, is it because they’re on Facebook or because they’re in a cavernous auditorium with several hundred other captives, being talked at by someone who’s likely had no formal pedagogical training whatsoever? More than one thing can be true, certainly, but I’m more interested in the factors that would lead to a student checking their fantasy team’s lineup rather than listening to the instructor. Addressing those factors, I suspect, would be more effective than yelling at someone for having their laptop open.
I’ve written on this before, but it I find myself repeating it often: unilateral bans on technology in the classroom accomplish nothing but demonstrating an off-putting rigidity and an adversarial view of students. They are far from guaranteed to improve learning. Moreover, they ignore the needs of disabled students and faculty for whom devices are the sine qua non of their academic routines. If you’re the grumpy faculty member who kvetches about students not being taught penmanship in primary school, and who makes their classes take notes by hand to build character or whatever, take a step back and think about what you’re actually saying to your students: that some are inherently deficient, that they will fall short, and that your way is the only possible way to learn. It may make you feel better-Old school! Rigor! You need me on that wall!-but it’s shitty teaching.
I suspect that reason so many are quick to embrace the sweeping conclusions of the technology-as-distraction arguments is that they speak to negative personal experience. It’s hard to be delivering a lecture or conducting an activity that you put a lot of effort into creating, only to see a student checking their phone. It feels personal. It’s frustrating when students aren’t retaining content, no matter how many times you’ve circled back to it in class. It sucks when discussions go nowhere. But there is probably more than one reason for these things happening. But if two-thirds of the class is doing non-class related stuff on a laptop or cell phone, why is that happening? Are they incorrigible internet addicts, or is it a pedagogical issue? If they’re not getting to where you want them to be, is it Twitter’s fault? Or is it the side effect of a lecture-based, passive pedagogy that doesn’t engage anyone?
I would submit that the answer to the distracted student question is never a unilateral ban on technology in the classroom. Let’s be real: it’s not as if students paid rapt attention to everything faculty said until the smart phone was invented. I was an undergrad in the dark times before the internet, and my class notes have a staggeringly-high ratio of doodles to course content. No technology was there to help lead me astray, but I did a good job of it nonetheless. Of course, there are situations where you’ll want your students to not use devices. But there will also be occasions where you’ll want to encourage their use (quick polling, checking something online). That’s the whole point–there are no hard and fast rules, nor should there be. Good pedagogy is, above all, flexible. And, rather than an end unto itself, technology is a tool that can support good pedagogy if it’s used appropriately.
The way in which so many have taken advantage of any suggestion-no matter how dubious-that technology should be banned from the classroom underscores the glaring lack of nuance that’s accompanied the conversation. We should be wary of universal diktats and blanket prescriptions when it comes to pedagogy. Student learning is both promoted and hindered by a number of factors-some embedded and structural, some fleetingly temporary. If I was building a house, and hit my thumb with a hammer, banning hammers from the job site would not be a useful response. The same holds true for the web-surfing student in our classroom. Rather than banning the tool because of an instance where someone used it improperly, we should work to prevent the processes which led to that instance. Our students need to be our allies, not our adversaries, if genuine learning is to occur. Students cannot experience the transformative effects that higher education can and should inculcate if we refuse to treat them as responsible agents who are the co-architects of their learning. We cannot fall into the traps of conflating correlation and causation, or assuming students will behave poorly unless explicitly forced to do otherwise. If we approach teaching as an assertion of power, an imposition of our will, then we fail our students. Only if we invite our students to actively participate in the collective scholarly enterprise that is their collegiate education will we succeed.
EDIT: I’ve been made aware that the West Point study involves sections that actually have small class sizes, usually around 18, with the course assessment is standardized across sections. But there wasn’t a discussion of the pedagogy employed by instructors, so I remain committed to my concerns regarding the number of variables potentially involved in the results. (Thanks to Michael Anes for the clarifications.)
(Image via GIPHY)