Moronic multitaskers vs digital natives: the smartphone crisis


First impressions are important

“The single biggest problem facing education today is that our Digital Immigrant instructors, who speak an outdated language (that of the pre-digital age), are struggling to teach a population that speaks an entirely new language.” –Marc Prensky, 2001 (creator of the “digital natives” concept)

“Multitaskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking.” –Clifford Nass, 2009


Almost four years ago, I launched a radical new approach to teaching my courses. I began confiscating student phones for the duration of every class.

blank-face-2Let’s pretend her name was Kathy. I kept issuing the usual pleas to her – and everyone – to stay off their phones, as it’s hard to participate in a seminar discussion when you’re typing Facebook likes. Kathy was worse than most, so I moved her to a seat directly in front of the lab podium. But even when I was hovering, she kept typing furiously, like I was invisible. She was the last straw. Neither my ego nor my pedagogy could take it any more.


Where phones go to facilitate the learning process (COMN 4520)

Around the time I started my full frontal phone attack, I posted the first of three items on dumb things you can do with smartphones, in September 2011. I took it for granted that thousands of other instructors faced the same problem every time they walked into a classroom. But I figured I had a particularly good reason for my phone strategy. I was teaching liberal arts undergrads how the Internet works.

That first post had two purposes. One was to advance the claim that phones in the classroom did actually interfere with learning (a claim for which I had little real evidence).

“This is, after all, the age of multitasking and nobody has embraced that lifestyle choice more than teens and young adults. What they don’t know or won’t acknowledge is good research has shown convincingly that our brains don’t like multitasking.”

The other was to explain how I was implementing the system:

“The technique is captured by one of the slides I screen to provide a sense of how constant inattention in the room makes a hard-working instructor feel angry and unappreciated: ‘Hey prof, go fuck yourself, I’m busy texting’.”


I knew back then I was bucking a trend. What I didn’t know was whether anybody else in the teaching profession had gone to the same lengths. And by the same lengths, I mean not only taking away phones, but banishing the use of digital devices altogether, whether laptops, tablets or the lab iMacs. I had a hunch students would learn more about connectivity and connectedness by being disconnected.

Teacher, teach thyself

I reached a point this year when I began to wonder how the phone ban was really working. Not that feedback was lacking. Some students had said they loved the new-found experience of being able to concentrate in a class. Others hated it – to the point where some dropped the course rather than suffer the indignity. Pressure from others seemed to play a big role, from angry BFF’s who couldn’t wait 30 seconds for a text reply, to rejected moms who told their kids the instructor must be crazy.


Cover of 2011 annual report from UK regulator Ofcom

Fast forward to late last May, when I asked the 34 students in my two summer courses to complete a little survey I’d prepared. They had 10 questions to answer, plus three demographic variables: gender, academic year and phone type.

I knew three factors were going to skew the results: gender balance, timing and quasi-anonymity. First, women are usually over-represented in my courses (and generally in communication studies). In the survey, they out-numbered the men by just over 2-to-1 (23 women, 11 men), making some conclusions less than solid.

Second, I waited until three weeks after the start of classes to conduct the survey, thinking everyone would feel more comfortable by then. On the downside, I get a fair number of students dropping out in the first week or two, and they take much of the negativity about the phone ban with them. Third, everyone completed the survey in class by hand. Although I stressed the exercise was confidential, and could be submitted without a name, there was likely to be a kind of halo effect in favor of the instructor and his clever ideas.

Voice in the wilderness

Qualifiers notwithstanding, the survey provided some fascinating information, while creating a better sense of classroom community. I’ll cover just one question here and return to the others next time:

Question #3 – Have you ever taken another course in which you had to surrender your phone for every class? 

To my astonishment, not a single student among the 34 said “yes.” In other words, after spending anywhere from two to four years at York, mine was the only course in which anyone had ever been asked to surrender their phone.

As I’ll explain, I was careful to distinguish “surrender” from the usual instructor habit of letting students keep their phones, while asking them not to pay any attention to Facebook. That, as we know from long, painful experience, is a mug’s game. And indeed, only 5 of the 34 students said they thought this technique was “very effective.”

More in a subsequent post…