1:1, Digital Distraction, & Internet Inattention

attentionA num­ber of recent media pieces, includ­ing two arti­cles in
the Wash­ing­ton Post (March
 and April
) describ­ing col­lege pro­fes­sor back­lash against stu­dent note­book PCs in
class, give me pause as I con­tinue to move my mid­dle school toward a 1:1
stu­dent com­put­ing program. (Last Mon­day, our Upper School Divi­sion Head
and I [Direc­tor of IT] pre­sented an update on our draft 1:1 stu­dent com­put­ing
pro­posal to the full school Board, bring­ing us one step closer to

Uni­ver­si­ties have been bell­wethers in the use of infor­ma­tion
tech­nol­ogy in edu­ca­tion, hav­ing led the adop­tion of com­put­ers, com­puter
net­works, the Inter­net, wire­less net­works, and wide­spread stu­dent lap­top
pro­grams, but these arti­cles describe a rebuff of com­put­ing technology’s
grow­ing pop­u­lar­ity. Has the pen­e­tra­tion of IT in edu­ca­tion out­stripped its
effec­tive use? Are we see­ing the early warn­ing signs of an insti­tu­tional
rejec­tion of mobile com­put­ing in education?

Nor­mally, I would dis­miss the Post arti­cles as mere
news-mongering, ped­dling iso­lated if sen­sa­tional inci­dents such as the physics
pro­fes­sor who shat­tered a liq­uid nitro­gen frozen lap­top to announce his ban
How­ever, hav­ing also expe­ri­enced uni­ver­sity hos­til­ity toward stu­dent note­book
PCs first-hand, I am inclined to refrain from dis­miss­ing these arti­cles
out-of-hand. A few of pro­fes­sors in my own Mas­ters pro­gram at the Uni­ver­sity of
Chicago have dis­al­lowed stu­dent com­put­ers in their classes for the same rea­sons
cited in the Post arti­cles. One included an entire read­ing
in the course packet to explain his stance. Thank­fully, in my pro­gram, unlike
the U of C law school, where Inter­net access
has been banned
, such restric­tions have been the excep­tion. (Nick Sauers
has pro­vided com­men­tary on more recent law school lap­top bans on this blog already.)

Hav­ing seen the mas­sive invest­ment
in cam­pus com­puter net­works and the rise of note­book com­puter pro­grams at many
schools, and hav­ing per­son­ally used a note­book PC in class as a stu­dent for the
past 20 years—since I was a senior in high school—I have been some­what
dumb­founded by this turn.

Of course, my pre-WiFi, pre-World
Wide Web, mono­chrome Tandy 1100FD
offered far fewer oppor­tu­ni­ties for dis­trac­tion for me in my high school and
col­lege classes than do even today’s lowli­est net­books or smart­phones. I had
the advan­tage of build­ing my in-class com­put­ing habits on a com­par­a­tively
bor­ing plat­form. Com­puter tech­nol­ogy has changed, how­ever, and given my own first-hand
expe­ri­ence of the dis­trac­tion fac­tor offered by wire­less note­book PCs in
classes, I do under­stand the moti­va­tion behind the bans, even if I do not agree
with the tac­tic. The lure of instant Google grat­i­fi­ca­tion of any stray thought
dur­ing an oth­er­wise unin­ter­est­ing lec­ture is pretty pow­er­ful. While I use my tablet PC in class
for tak­ing notes and ref­er­enc­ing class e-texts, I admit to hav­ing suc­cumbed to
check­ing e-mail dur­ing lec­tures that did not engage my full atten­tion. I have
had the pres­ence of mind to avoid the egre­gious exam­ples of on-line shop­ping,
instant mes­sag­ing, social net­work­ing, and gam­ing that are cited in the back­lash
arti­cles. I am a mid-life adult, how­ever, not a late-adolescent col­lege stu­dent
still devel­op­ing the impulse con­trol sys­tems of my pre-frontal cor­tex. As a
result, I may be slightly bet­ter able to resist the itch to update Face­book when
faced with a dry lec­ture on finance. More impor­tantly, I am not—like the
stu­dents for whom I am plan­ning a 1:1 program—a pre-adolescent even fur­ther
back on that devel­op­men­tal path.

That devel­op­men­tal issue is the
one that gives me the great­est pause. While the premise of 1:1 pro­grams is to
make learn­ing more inter­ac­tive, engag­ing, and effec­tive than tra­di­tional
class­room lec­tures and activ­i­ties, I worry that they may instead train our stu­dents
for the sort computer-enabled dis­trac­tion, inat­ten­tion, and escapism
exem­pli­fied in the back­lash arti­cles. On a broader soci­etal level, such wor­ries
have got­ten press in recent New York
Times arti­cles
high­light­ing the distraction-addiction-dark side of Inter­net
tech­nol­ogy. Nicholas Carr sparked the con­ver­sa­tion about the down­side of the
Inter­net with his thought-provoking Atlantic Monthly arti­cle “Is
Google Mak­ing Us Stu­pid?
”, which he has now expanded into a book. Of
course, I have not the time to read it (as if to prove his point ;-), so my
under­stand­ing of the brain changes induced by Inter­net use and the
well-documented pro­duc­tiv­ity drops attend­ing mul­ti­task­ing come from the
syn­op­tic Wired arti­cle.

Touch­ing on sim­i­lar ground, Philip
Zombardo’s RSA Animate-enhanced TED Talk on The Secret Pow­ers of
at one point argues that the 10,000 hours of video games played by the typ­i­cal Amer­i­can
boy by the time he turns 21 traps him in the mode of instant gratification/present-hedonism and wires his brain for an always engag­ing, con­trol­lable, immer­sive vir­tual exis­tence mal­adapted to
tra­di­tional class­room learn­ing, exac­er­bat­ing our nation’s school drop-out
prob­lem. While I am not con­vinced that heavy expo­sure to infor­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy
nec­es­sar­ily ends in an inevitable night­mare of self-destructive
present-hedonism, I think the propen­sity for Internet-inattention is real. So is
1:1 com­put­ing the rem­edy for that home/school dis­con­nect, mak­ing school more
engag­ing, allow­ing it to com­pete with richer, more engag­ing expe­ri­ences out­side of school through more
inter­ac­tive tech­nol­ogy? Or is it sim­ply another dose of dis­trac­tion and easy

I do not pro­fess to know the answer to those ques­tions, but
sev­eral things occur to me as I reflect on this issue. First, this dis­tract­ing
tech­nol­ogy shows no signs of dimin­ish­ing, only of becom­ing more immer­sive, com­pelling,
and ubiq­ui­tous. To remain rel­e­vant, schools need to deal with that real­ity.
Sec­ond, con­trol of atten­tion is cen­tral to suc­cess. In the short-term, stud­ies
show that multi-tasking is less effi­cient than single-tasking, by up to 40%. In the
long-term, con­trol of atten­tion is linked to the devel­op­ment of exec­u­tive
func­tion­ing and the self-regulation skills so vital to suc­cess in life. Third, in
embrac­ing class­room com­put­ing, schools have the oppor­tu­nity to teach stu­dents how
to develop their self-control to deal with dig­i­tal dis­trac­tions. Pri­mary and
sec­ondary schools have much greater lever­age than do col­leges in guid­ing
stu­dent class­room behav­ior. Nick Sauers has cov­ered class­room man­age­ment in the
con­text of 1:1 pro­grams in his post “Ban Bore­dom
not lap­tops
” on this blog. The teacher’s art of effec­tive class­room
man­age­ment will become even more impor­tant as tech­nol­ogy pro­gres­sively moves
into schools. Sim­i­larly, and more sig­nif­i­cantly, this envi­ron­ment requires
increas­ing empha­sis on devel­op­ing stu­dents’ metacog­ni­tive reg­u­la­tion, exec­u­tive
func­tion­ing, and emo­tional self-management.

How can we help stu­dents develop strate­gies for con­trol­ling their
atten­tion given the dig­i­tal dis­trac­tions to which stu­dents are every­where exposed?
What is your school doing? 


  1. Nick:
    Great blog post. Lap­tops don’t fit in classrooms…traditional ones that is…you’re talk­ing about a lec­ture, a mode of infor­ma­tion deliv­ery that for stu­dents you iden­tify “as mal­adapted to tra­di­tional class­room learn­ing.“
    Therein lies the prob­lem. The lap­tops don’t fit and we are slow to change sys­tem­i­cally.
    I am con­vinced a multi-layered approach to teach­ing, cen­tered around online course deliv­ery, could be our best tran­si­tional approach.
    As to what we are doing in our school? We are wide open with one-to-one, block­ing face­book, but lit­tle else. We use remote desk­top to seek out teach­able moments for stu­dents who are way off task, but find­ing that if you give stu­dents time to engage a well-planned les­son or activ­ity, they will get back on task more than enough to com­plete tasks.
    As a dis­trict we are learn­ing as we go, pun­ish­ing those who abuse, but not restrict­ing the casual offender who, in most instances, have become dis­en­gaged due to the lack of imag­i­na­tion on the part of the les­son. Sure, even dur­ing the best lessons our kids stray to Craig’s List for cars, prom dress sites, and the lat­est music infor­ma­tion, but we have observed them get­ting back on task either by choice or an engaged teacher.
    You can trans­form a lec­ture hall with lap­tops, it can’t be done and they don’t belong there. But as col­leges are find­ing out, some stu­dents have fig­ured out they don’t belong there either and are find­ing other ways to get their “high ed”.

  2. Garth Holman says:

    I agree with Dominic-Traditional learn­ing vs. lap­top learn­ing. We have been a one to one school for 8 years–middle school. If you engage kids in learn­ing the vast major­ity will not “Surf”. The key is find­ing ways to use the lap­top each day in ways that keep stu­dents into the topic..Quick image searches for details, Vir­tual tours, off site skype lessons, elec­tronic note­books, and much more. Good teach­ing strategies–best prac­tices with or with­out lap­tops. Keep class engag­ing and fun for stu­dents.
    I also have learned the tra­di­tional method of stand­ing in the front of the room is not the way to go. I got a wire­less key­board and mouse and then teach from the back of the room, this way I can see every screen as we work. A small change the has a major impact on learn­ing. We are on vaca­tion at the beach, so I have to go before I get in trou­ble with the wife. But check out my blog on one to one at http://www.teachersfortomrrow.net

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