Is it better to go off-line when teaching?

Students, just like most of us including me, are too distractible, especially younger ones lacking self discipline, and by younger I mean first year university, not genuinely young. These days we put the content and the tutorial questions on the Learning Management System (LMS, really just a website) and we tell them to use the LMS to access the questions and the supporting materials and such. Once upon a time they’d just get a bunch of photocopies (‘photostats’) or before that roneos (mimeographs) or just “copy this down off the board.” I’m not pining for the past, I’m trying to work out how we can combine the best of then and now.

What happened then was we’d come to class having not looked at anything beforehand, we’d copy down a bunch of questions or question numbers off the blackboard (it wasn’t a whiteboard) like ‘Ch 8 Q 12-18’) then we’d have the book open in front of us and we’d whisper to each other while we were supposed to be working out the answers. Hmm.

What happens now is this:

They come to class having not looked at anything beforehand (just like in the old days), because the know they can access it when they get there (we knew we’d be given it when we got there, back in the day, so no difference there). But, and this is different now, they then spend ten minutes getting onto the university network and getting distracted by Facebook or whatever and don’t download the questions until the tutorial is half over. Then they get out their notebook (or tablet and stylus) and read the question and… check their messages. Then they show the guy sitting next to them a cat video. Then they laugh and eat some Skittles (fine, fine, that is not the internet’s fault), then they look at Pinterest or for all I know Tinder, and then I ask them how they’re going and they mumble and we’re over half way through now and they have written down a few bits of data pertaining to the first question and that’s it.

Okay, maybe I’m overstating, but I have seen it happen that way. I’m not just fighting any innate apathy or disinterest (or depression or sense of futility) to get them to do the work, I am fighting the single most interesting thing the human race has ever constructed — a world wide distraction machine that has everything on it and available at the touch of a screen.

At best, even when they are doing some physics or mathematics, their attention is divided — they are always ready to pounce on an alert from whatever bit of social media they use, so their brain is never really thinking about the questions we give them to (we hope) help them learn.

Now, in the past when you copied a question off the board, it went in your eyes, through your brain and out your fingers onto the paper. I’m not sure that’s much better than not engaging with it at all, but it can’t be worse. You could only really talk to the people either side of you, just as students can now, so there were by definition fewer distractions because now there are all the ones I had as a student plus smart phones, so at the very least students now have more distractions. Do they deal with them better than I used to? Valid question. Maybe these days they have extra information, extra connectivity, and the ability to use that without being consumed by it.

I’m not sure.

I started thinking about this post while I stood there watching students flick away from Snapchat (or whatever it was) and back to the LMS whenever they saw me coming. A few were able to use the ‘net to find useful information, or a website with some helpful content, and that’s good because a working scientist or problem solver (engineer, IT, whatever) does just that, calling on the info around them as well as what they know. But those students were a small minority.

I recall thinking how I would really, really like to given them all a paper copy of the questions or, better, ask them to bring their own copies (then at least they would have looked at it to the extent of downloading and printing it off and getting it from the printer with their own actual physical fingers before they got there — does that count as ‘engagement’?), and then use just their notebook, their bog basic calculator and their textbook (they still exist, they do!) to tackle the problems.

I don’t say the web is useless. It is great for communication, for extra activities and resources. They can use the web to access the material easily and flexibly when they are not in my class. I use it to distribute videos to buttress the material, to direct them to external resources, though Britney Spears’ Guide to Semiconductor Physics is getting a little behind the zeitgeist now… The WWW ought to be great for collaboration, for ready access to what the students have not internalised. For simulations, for VR, for virtual laboratories, for Skype visits to major laboratories, for feedback, for interaction, for… the sky is the limit.

But not if you can’t sit still long enough to actually do it.

We’ve tried to engage the students to make them want to be there. I mean, that should solve everything. And there’s always a few who do want to be there and  that’s great, they learn almost regardless of what the teachers do. But some students are in the class because they have been told to be there, because the subject is a prerequisite for what the really want, because they thought they would like it and now it’s too late to drop out without recording a fail, whatever. By giving them the option to more easily be mentally elsewhere when they have not developed the self-discipline to choose to do what needs to be done, I’m not sure we’re helping. I wonder if more distraction-free classroom time would have its benefits as part of a broader suite of learning opportunities? Some of the environments would use all the tech at our disposal, and some would just have the student and their brain and the stuff to be tackled.

I just want the best of both worlds; is that too much to ask?

 

Old fart, I am.

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About Darren

I'm a scientist by training, based in Australia.

2 responses to “Is it better to go off-line when teaching?”

  1. Sean Munger says :

    Thanks for your thoughts on this. I’ve been struggling with the same issues. I’m teaching a class next term on the American Revolution, taking it over from another professor (my adviser, actually) who taught it for many years. He had a rule in his class: no electronics at all, not even note taking on a laptop. I was struggling whether to maintain that rule, leaning toward it, but your observations here have made me decide. They should take notes on pen and paper. Dealing with 18th century source documents, they should absorb the meaning of the words the way the people at the time did. And they’ll learn more.

    • Darren says :

      Hi Sean. Thanks for your interest. If you’ve got the tradition of it being on paper, if it were me I would maintain it. You can even talk to them about why. I’d be interested to hear how it goes. If you run other courses that use more current technology, I’d be very interested to hear your impressions and comparisons after a semester, even if just anecdotal.

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