I found it interesting that this week’s readings were listed under the heading of Attention/multitasking, but the central theme running through all of them seemed to be technology. I think this speaks both to our current obsession with technology and the reality that technology shapes how we live our lives in profound ways. Clive Thomson argued that humans have been using technology to supplement the human thought process since virtually the beginning of time. Meanwhile, Jason Farman argued that technology (especially cell phones) has allowed for new forms of intimate connection even as it has limited face to face communication. On the other hand, Darren Rosenblum argued that technology can distract students and prevent them from interacting when he explained his reasoning for not allowing computers in the classroom. How, as teachers, should we respond to the new opportunities and challenges afforded by technology, particularly in regards to attention?
I think the first step is to recognize the rapid pace of changes in technology. I like to think of myself as a relatively young person, but the environment that I grew up learning in is significantly different than the environment that my students are growing up in. I got my first cell phone when I was a sophomore in high school (this was around 2003) and I could probably count on my hands the number of times that I actually used it. If my friends wanted to talk to me they would call me on my home phone or, more likely, they would just wait to talk to me at school the next day. This really didn’t change all that much early on in college. I always turned my phone off during class and it wouldn’t be uncommon for me to just accidentally leave it off for the rest of the day. As college went on, my phone use became more frequent, since that was my job’s primary way of contacting me. I didn’t send my first text message until years after college (probably around 2012), and then I only started texting because I had a friend that was uncomfortable with talking on the phone because of a stutter. Now, however, that’s how virtually all of my contact with classmates and church groups is conducted. Moreover, phones have become multi-functionary tools, serving as the platform for multiple forms of communication, our gateway to a global web of information, and a veritable Swiss army knife of miscellaneous virtual gadgetry. In high school, if I forgot my cell phone at home my first reaction would be that I hope I don’t get into a wreck today. Now, I would be asking myself how I’m going to get anything accomplished today (especially since Virginia Tech’s Central Authentication System is built under the assumption that everyone has constant access to a cell phone.)
How does all of this relate back to the classroom?
First of all, I think this reflection suggests that we cannot assume that what worked for us as learners thirty, ten, or even five years ago will work for our students today. Moreover, I don’t think that we can assume that what worked one semester will continue to work in the next. Constant change suggests the need for constant flexibility. Perhaps instead of having technology policies in our syllabuses, we should treat those policies as an evolving contract with the class, one that may require renegotiation as the semester progresses. This sort of open-ended policy would allow us to adapt to meet the needs of our class and even to tailor the learning environment to meet specific learning goals on a class by class basis.
I also think that the ever increasing pace of change requires us to constantly refocus ourselves on our core values and goals. When I worked as a sound and lighting technician at the student center, my boss would often ask us what the most important piece of equipment was. The new digital sound boards? The sturdy, reliable microphones? No. The most import equipment was ourselves. Usually this conversation was designed to remind us to always put our personal safety first, but I believe it also held a deeper meaning. Technology is ultimately a tool and a tool is defined by how its user chooses to utilize it. A cutting edge sound board can still sound like crap if the person using it doesn’t know to operate the equipment or doesn’t care enough to try to create the best possible mix. A hammer can enhance our ability to build, but we can also use it to destroy.
In the end, our classrooms our defined not by the technology that is used or the technology that is banned, but by the values that we and are students bring with us. If we want our students to pay attention, then we first need to make sure that we are teaching them things that we genuinely believe are worth learning. More than that, we need to be willing to honestly but passionately articulate why we think these things are important and we also need to listen to students and let their goals influence our classrooms as well. I can’t force my students to care about my class but it’s also utterly unreasonable for me to expect them to if I don’t prove that I care about the class and about them.