The digital life is killing higher ed (2)

Yesterday I described the latest Pew/Elon survey on the future of the Internet. The first of three main questions for the participants asked whether the digital life will help or harm our personal well-being. Harm, says I.

The next question asks for a personal anecdote to illustrate some of the concerns being aired:

“Please share a brief personal anecdote about how digital technology has changed your daily life, your family’s life or your friends’ lives in regard to well-being – some brief observation about technology’s impact on life for you, your family or friends. Tell us how this observation or anecdote captures how hyper-connected life changes people’s well-being, compared to the way life was before digital connectivity existed.”

Another easy choice. Here’s what I wrote in my survey response:

SEVERAL years ago I walked into my 4th-year class and, in a fit of pique, announced I was confiscating everyone’s phone for the entire three hours. I later upped the ante by banning all digital devices, in favor of pen and paper. Some unusual revelations have emerged since then — including some happy outcomes from going digital cold turkey.

The plot twist is the students in my courses turn up to learn about telecom and Internet technologies. On the surface, it looks like a perfect match: hyperconnected digital natives acquiring more knowledge about digital. If only. The sad truth is they suffer from a serious behavioral addiction that makes it pretty much impossible for them to pay attention to their instructors or classmates. It also turns out these digital natives don’t know anything more about digital than their elders.

When they start my classes, students react with predictable shock and annoyance when I confiscate their phones. Some even drop out rather than suffer the indignity of being offline. The good news is that redemption comes to almost everyone — to pretty much everyone’s surprise. Within a month, I get enthused reactions about how good it feels to be phone-deprived. Grades go up, as does the quality of class discussion. One noteworthy revelation comes from students who say this is the first time they’ve been able to concentrate on the course material. And the only course in which they’ve learned something! That would be flattering if it weren’t such a sad indictment of the state of higher education today, where classrooms have become a wasteland of digital distraction.

It’s tempting to assume our hyperconnected 20-somethings are the authors of their own fate, and have only themselves to blame for not getting the best from their education. Except it’s not that simple. First of all, students are behaving exactly like the grownups in our tech-addled culture, ditching their moment-to-moment social responsibilities for another jab at the screen. Second, this unseemly classroom behavior is a coping strategy for many students, who have to put up with indifferent professors and a pervasive campus culture that casts them in the role of customers rather than learners. And third, they have many enablers — the instructors who see not paying attention as the new normal, the parents who can’t bear to be out of touch with their kids for even an hour, and the campus admins who turn a blind eye because of their own obsession with new technologies as a panacea for every institutional problem.

For all their initial resistance, depriving students of their devices for three-hour stretches has turned out to be a remarkably simple and effective antidote. There’s also good research — by academics who teach in these very classrooms — that students are less effective at learning their course material when they’re online and ignoring the instructor (duh). Not to mention studies showing that students learn more and better using pen and paper instead of keyboards and screens. Yet putting phones out of reach remains stunningly unpopular and is still looked upon as cruel and unusual punishment. Too bad the academic benefits that are so obvious to my band of outsiders aren’t remotely obvious to anybody else, at least for now.