In a post a few weeks back, Tania Lombrozo drew attention to research showing that students using laptops and other digital devices in the college classroom are less likely to perform as well as students not using them.
It isn't just that using the devices to multitask during a lecture — searching the Web, posting on Facebook and Instagram, texting, etc. — may hurt your performance. It turns out that students around you who see you multitasking show an even more marked drop-off in how well they do.
There's nothing surprising in this. It's true, as Tania notices, that students are likely to underestimate the deleterious effects that indulging in digital distractions may have on their performance and that of those around them. But the basic phenomenon is pretty straightforward and easy to grasp. Having a smartphone out on your desk in the lecture is the equivalent of bringing a friend to class with you. Going online, even for purposes that may be related to class, is like chatting with your friend during the lecture. And sitting next to a student surfing the Web is like sitting next to a person who won't stop fooling around with his or her companion. The laptop, like the companion, is a distraction.
Some students with disabilities need digital devices. But putting people with special needs aside, is there a case for banning digital devices in the classroom?
Like many in higher education, I'm torn.
Digitalia, to coin a phrase, are more like wallets and diaries and rings and, indeed, tattoos, than they are mere things that we can deposit at the entry. To be human in the 21st century, at least in these parts, is to be plugged-in, enhanced, online and connected.
Asking students to leave their devices at the door — this is something I don't feel that I have a right to do. Even when I think, even when I know, that it would be a good thing.
Now it would be different if my job as an instructor were like that of an engineer whose task is to optimize a production process. But students are not products. They are not plants in a nursery.
They are free agents, collaborators — this is how I view them, anyway — and it isn't possible to legislate the best way to deal with the lures, the temptations, the habit-forming power of these personal technologies. Each of us needs to do this, for ourselves.
I can't bring myself to try to ban these new technologies in the classroom because to do so, it seems to me, would be to infringe on the personal liberty of my students.
So what are we to do?
Going forward, I will try to impress on my students that, quite above and beyond the cognitive costs, that is, the decrement in learning, there are social costs. It is rude, basically, to sit there and ignore what is going on around you. It is selfish to disrupt the joint work of the group.
Beyond that, our task, as teachers, must be to engage and capture the attention of these citizens as they are. The new technologies are part of what makes the new person.
Alva Noë is a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley where he writes and teaches about perception, consciousness and art. He is the author of several books, including his latest, Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2015). You can keep up with more of what Alva is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe