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Matthew Pate | The irrelevant Mr. Chips

If you’ve taken or taught a college class in the last decade, you can probably attest to the changes brought about by digital technology. We have so-called “smart classrooms” where the technological interface is front and center; and even when it’s not in the limelight, digital technology is omnipresent.

There’s a just published study by researchers at Michigan State University that should give every instructor, student and parent a moment of pause amid the din of infinite information. Researchers conclude that even the smartest college students suffer academically when they use the Internet in class for non-academic purposes.

Susan Ravizza and her colleagues found that all students in their study — regardless of the student’s intellectual ability — had lower exam scores the more they used the Internet for non-academic purposes such as reading the news, sending emails and posting social media updates.

The researchers, Faria Sana, Tina Weston and Nicholas Cepeda, reached similar conclusions. Their findings clearly debunk the common “multi-tasking” defense. As they observe: “Participants’ comprehension was impaired when they performed multiple tasks during learning, one being the primary task of attending to the lecture material and taking notes, and the other being the secondary task of completing unrelated online tasks.”

They also throw a big monkey wrench in the consumerist argument — a.k.a. “I paid for the class. So, I can do what I want during class.”

As the researchers conclude, “Comprehension was impaired for participants who were seated in view of peers engaged in multitasking. This finding suggests that despite actively trying to learn the material… these participants were placed at a disadvantage by the choices of their peers.”

In other words, even if your kid is paying attention in class, just sitting next to someone who’s surfing or otherwise digitally fidgeting, they will get less out of the course.

This all comes down to a pretty simple fact about the human capacity for learning — you can’t focus on two things at once, at least not in any deep sense.

As someone who has spent several years competing for the attention of students, this research comes as no surprise. Like it or not, we have raised a generation of students who have little concept of delayed gratification and who largely view their time in the classroom as a necessary evil. On top of this, many students have adopted (with the not so subtle encouragement of university administrators) a consumerist and transactional view of the professor-student relationship.

Class is no longer about an informed exchange of ideas; it is the place students go to get a checkmark. If they get enough checkmarks, they get a diploma.

We have only ourselves to blame. We gave them technological toys that provided immediate gratification at the push of a button. We told them that nothing mattered that was longer than a YouTube video. We taught not for knowledge, but for standardized test scores.

Corollary to this, we stopped teaching them how to write. I have encountered many students who cannot read cursive writing and who cannot themselves write legibly in block lettering. With this as a backstop, you don’t even want to know about grammar and spelling.

Some may read this and conclude I am just offended because I’m no longer the center of attention. Sure. Everybody wants to feel needed and important — me included — but the university put me in class (presumably) because I have spent decades thinking about the material I’m teaching. If my expertise is sufficient to warrant attention, then it shouldn’t be too much to expect a student to exclusively devote 45 minutes a couple of times a week, should it? Otherwise, class could be just a reading list and a series of multiple choice tests.

With the expansion of online education, that’s exactly where we’re headed. I know. I teach online.

Of course my opinions here are overly broad strokes. To be sure, I am no luddite. I don’t wax romantic for some “sage on the stage” Paperchase arena of totalitarian professorship. I am all for the wise integration of technology as an adjunct to the process, but to this point, we’ve just surrendered the classroom to the technology.

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