And that’s it on the classroom crisis for now (5/5)

The Tate Modern

This is part 5 of the 5 parts on the classroom crisis that I began in August.

[1800 words]

Digital life lessons

The progress I achieved in the classroom all started with banning the students’ digital devices. I was their lord and master for three hours, and I assumed dealing with the attention problem was the easy part — after confiscating everyone’s phones I just had to wait for the dust to settle. But I soon learned that a phone ban is more complicated than it looks because it’s all about the follow-through.

After initiating the ban I noted reactions around the room and heard from students how they were feeling. Not good was the consensus — at first. For most a feeling of annoyance or hostility was mixed in with apprehension about how things would go in a phone-less three-hour stretch of class. That struck me as pretty much how millions of people, students and otherwise, feel about their tech dependencies. But unlike what happens in the real world, I had several advantages going for me. I had a captive audience, more or less. We had lots to do in the time slot, plus everyone could see a hard end-point when our time was up, but mostly we had a syllabus to cover. I figured the only way to make this scene work was to ensure everyone forgot their plight, the better to focus on the wonderful discoveries about the digital world they inhabit. A sprinkling of colorful language didn’t hurt.

 A few decided to drop the course, a choice probably reflecting fear of hard work as much as fear of missing out (aka FOMO) on the latest Snapchat ping. Once things were going well, there were expressions of regret about the harm the phones did to academic performance. By the third or fourth seminar, the discussion could sound strangely reminiscent of an AA or group therapy session:  “Hi, my name is John, I’m a 4th-year Comm Studies major, and I’m addicted to my phone…”

By every account — class discussions, student interviews, formal course evaluations — the outcome has been remarkably positive. I didn’t suspect it, they didn’t suspect it, but most students really do want someone to take their phones away while in class. Take them away-away, don’t leave them in their clutches and plead for better manners, which never works. What powers the initial shock is that it’s never happened to them before, inside or outside the classroom. It’s a first and it takes some getting used to.

To my delight, the new-found attitude carried over down the hall to other classrooms. Students told me they’d become conscientious about avoiding their phones in other courses, enabling them to achieve better grades. My additional insistence that everyone work in class with pen and paper prompted similarly upbeat reactions. 

Off campus as well, a new awareness of how things work made converts of many students in their daily habits. One student who had been very wary of changing her comfortable ways decided to clean house. She started by being a lot more careful about online security by adopting strong passwords plus installing a virtual private network. She went on to delete her Facebook account, dropped her usual messaging platforms for Signal, replaced Google search with DuckDuckGo — and later snagged a great job at a digital marketing agency leading the search engine management team. Results not typical and career mileage will probably vary.

So it’s important we not single out the kids and assume they’ve pulled the tower of academe down themselves. This disruption of one of our society’s most important institutions can’t be laid at the doorstep of rebellious teenagehood or millennial myopia. While we’re at it, let’s not try to hang this on the technology either. Sure, those shiny phones and alluring apps have become the object of an epidemic of tech addiction; if they’d never been invented we might be happier, even with all that convenience we’d be missing. 

But smartphones were invented and we’re stuck with them — although obsessing about phones and their impact on learning runs the risk of turning a blind eye to some deeper and more intractable  problems. To be honest, some students shouldn’t be at university at all. Some parents should set an example. Some profs shouldn’t be teaching. Some campus VPs should be running a chain of laundromats. This isn’t the place to bemoan the state of higher ed, but smartphones are as much a symptom of institutional malaise as they are the proximate cause of students turning on and tuning out.

It’s also clear that the irresistible lure of the Internet has precipitated a wider range of social issues than the absentee student brain — issues that implicate a much larger swath of the populace than our not-so-digital, digital natives. For better and for worse, students are the product of their campus environment, but they’re also the product of the wider society in which they live. While they may be tech trendsetters of a kind, students are part of a set of trends that’s been sweeping First World countries for decades. 

To name only the most obvious of these trends, the digital attention deficit in the classroom is well matched outside the classroom. Recognizing that fact may be why different levels of government, apparently taking this social problem seriously, have tried to ban phones from entire school systems, not just one classroom, as I did — and failed. Their lack of success doesn’t bode well for re-engineering major tech issues ranging from security and privacy to net neutrality and mass surveillance, but the reasons for their failure are instructive.  

The French Ministry of Education’s experiment with two nationwide bans on phones in schools provides a good indicator of how difficult it is to convince the public at large that digital problems deserve a higher priority than they do at present. Opposing the later French ban in 2017 were many parents who worried about being out of touch with their kids during the school day. One reason for this may be that, after the first ban in 2010, smartphones appeared with tracking features that help parents locate their children at all times — a feature that reinforces the widespread misconception that city streets and country lanes are more dangerous than they ever were. 

Later, the ministry decreed that the idea was not intended to prevent phone use for important personal reasons, i.e. emergencies. But given the alarmist state of all nations about public safety, the scope of “emergencies” has expanded to legitimize what would have certainly been non-urgent personal calls in the past. Another exception to the ban allowed the use of phones for educational purposes — a caveat that may have neutered the ban entirely. Maintaining a meaningful distinction in the classroom between ed tech and personal tech, or educational and non-educational uses of a phone or computer, is impossible. It’s a well-greased, slippery slope that slides in one direction only.

Parental concerns about communicating with their children also played a major role in New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s decision in 2015 to lift a ten-year ban on phones on school premises. The other reason, however, was that the original ban was considered inequitable for lower-income students, since lower-income schools were more likely to have metal detectors and therefore more likely to enforce the ban. Not to mention the storage cost of phones outside the classroom, which could run to $180 a year on average. Rather than a blanket ban, the regulations supplanting it devolved responsibility for developing phone policies to the individual school level as long as the spirit of the regulations was maintained — that the phones should not interfere with learning. 

Apparently when the ban was instituted in 2005, New York City educators were acting on the reasonable belief that phones were distracting students from learning. But the issues behind removing the ban point to complex issues in society at large that, along with many others, will challenge large-scale implementation of changes in how we use digital tech. 

Breaking down grand decrees into their more manageable parts is a lesson I’ve also taken to heart in my classroom. Communication Studies can be both lofty and nerdy at the same time but my approach to the academic goal of critical thinking is more practical and down to earth. By all means let’s pack in the Marx and the McLuhan, but let’s not make them so sacred we stop there, as though the Internet is going to take care of itself. 

After all, learning to follow the money, as in how Facebook works, to take a notorious example, or how our ISP works, which is right up there in the notoriety stakes, is also part of a well-rounded education. Why shouldn’t the liberal arts embrace cultural theory, the Internet protocol suite — and the ISP nonsense we all have to deal with? One of my students’ favorite assignments is to write up a profile of their ISP — favorite partly because it’s a welcome change of pace from the pervasive and overly rigid “hamburger” essay model, and partly because it makes the ISP a lot less capable of getting away with the usual half-truths about how great their service is. 

But there’s a greater good here, as well. After spending a few months grappling with the nuts and bolts of digital tech and forsaking Instagram at least once a week, students come to realize what a miraculous gift we have in the Internet. And that’s a big deal for a group that takes what they have for granted, if only because they never have time to think about what they’ve got in the palm of their hands. They also come to realize what they stand to lose — if only because their prof keeps reminding them of all the forces that are trying to turn one of humankind’s greatest inventions into an elaborate version of cable-TV, or worse.

This epiphany is also a big deal these days because the Internet has become the scapegoat for everyone’s bad habits and the boogeymen who enable them. Anyone who sees the Internet as a planetary maw preparing to swallow us whole after bleeding us of our money and self-respect is not going to think of our shared networks as something awesome we should fight for. This is one case where familiarity breeds respect.

So if anything about this classroom experiment is a microcosm of what’s going on elsewhere, it lies in the vested interest we all have in the future of the Internet. This is the new civics. If it’s important to understand how our governments work and how to preserve our democratic traditions, then it’s surely every bit as important to understand the essentials of the Internet and how we can use that knowledge to make life better for ourselves and our fellow citizens.

The end till further notice