Anyone going to follow Clay Shirky & ask students to put laptops away?

Not Allowed!

Not Allowed! By My Sideways World on Flickr

Back in February I blogged about attention and and whether students were checking out of the flipped classroom.   In the post I mentioned the work Howard Rheingold has done around attention literacy and videoing one of his classes and then subsequently only allowing one or two students to take notes on laptops in his classes.

Several months on I continue to mull over these issues and so probably no surprise that a tweet linking to a piece on Medium from Clay Shirky outlining why he’s asked his students to stop using laptops and mobile devices in his classes caught my attention.  Shirky has banned the use of laptops in class unless they are required and in the piece he explains his rationale.  He says:

Over the years, I’ve noticed that when I do have a specific reason to ask everyone to set aside their devices (‘Lids down’, in the parlance of my department), it’s as if someone has let fresh air into the room. The conversation brightens, and more recently, there is a sense of relief from many of the students. Multi-tasking is cognitively exhausting — when we do it by choice, being asked to stop can come as a welcome change.

So this year, I moved from recommending setting aside laptops and phones to requiring it, adding this to the class rules: “Stay focused. (No devices in class, unless the assignment requires it.)”

Shirky goes on to outline the problems with multi-tasking, including the long term negative impact it can have on declarative memory.  He says:

People often start multi-tasking because they believe it will help them get more done. Those gains never materialize; instead, efficiency is degraded. However, it provides emotional gratification as a side-effect. (Multi-tasking moves the pleasure of procrastination inside the period of work.) This side-effect is enough to keep people committed to multi-tasking despite worsening the very thing they set out to improve.

On top of this, multi-tasking doesn’t even exercise task-switching as a skill. A study from Stanford reports that heavy multi-taskers are worse at choosing which task to focus on. (“They are suckers for irrelevancy”, as Cliff Nass, one of the researchers put it.) Multi-taskers often think they are like gym rats, bulking up their ability to juggle tasks, when in fact they are like alcoholics, degrading their abilities through over-consumption.

Shirky doesn’t say how his students have taken to this laptop ban though he does highlight that some students will opt of paying attention anyway (something which has always happened anyway even in the days when we didn’t laptops).

Has Shirky been too radical? It would be interesting to hear what lecturers and students think about banning laptops.  Is anyone else thinking of banning laptops or already done it.  How has that gone down with students.

 

3 comments

  1. Interesting read, thanks for sharing.

    I accept that a “no device” rule could be a valid pedagogic choice but it might come across as a bit on the extreme side, particularly within an institutional culture where this not the norm. But maybe the extreme nature would help make it all the more effective?

    A less extreme option which might fall more within the comfort level for a lecturer to try out would be to occasionally choose certain moments to ask everyone to close their devices and focus in on a certain concept, point, or thought. This contrast with the scattered multitasking attention should provide a powerful opportunity for both the subject matter and also some reflection on attention and the effects of multi tasking and hopefully without risking the resentment you might incur with a strict “no device” policy.

    1. Thanks for commenting Ben! It is a bit extreme and I’m not sure if I was a student I’d be too happy. It’s something I’ve blogged about before based on a series of papers that talked about students’ attention in classes and in particular in flipped classroom sessions. We run team-based learning sessions and in these sessions students can only use their devices when they work together in the application test section of the sessions. I’ve been in a few meetings recently where the discussion has focused on the need for teachers to develop more engaging learning activities and I think many would argue that if we paid more attention to this students being distracted by their laptops might not be so much of an issue.

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