Technology, Attention and Communication

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.

14 Replies to “Technology, Attention and Communication”

  1. Hi Heath,

    I have a slightly different history with cell phones than you, but have similar feelings about technology in the classroom. I have seen a few different faculty members handle technology in their classroom, and have found that even if rules or expectations for limited use are in place, it’s difficult to keep track and hold students accountable for that.

    Further, I agree that instructors should take some responsibility for students’ inappropriate technology use in class. Yes, students are ultimately responsible for their own behavior, but also if faculty are not engaging and challenging their students in class, it is understandable that minds will wander. Which connects our conversations about technology and attention back to contemporary pedagogy!

    1. Diana,
      I like that you brought up the issue of actually enforcing technology policies. One question I always try to ask myself when forming policies is whether a policy is easily enforced and whether it is worth the time, effort, and relationship capital to enforce it.

  2. Great post Heath. Recognizing the constant change in technology is key to understand how it influences students learning. I like how you referred to your experience in high school with the technology of the time and compared it to students experience today. The prevalence of technology today is inescapable. Additionally, as you mentioned in your post, we can do more with technology in our classrooms than in the past. I agree with you that it is important that teachers have a genuine care about their classes for students to care.

    1. Ziyad,
      Yes, technology is becoming increasingly inescapable, but I do ultimately think that our success in the classroom will continue to revolve primarily around how much we care about our content (in terms of what we are actually teaching and not the field in general), how much we care about our students and how will we can articulate this caring to our classes.

  3. Heath,
    I really like your post and I agree it’s really important to listen to students. As we age, I think it is easy to forget what it was like to be 18. And with technology changing so rapidly, I cannot fathom what it’s like to be 18 in 2018. I think listening to students about how they use technology can really help out a classroom. For example, my master’s advisor tried for the longest time for students to ask their questions in the discussion board of their version of Canvas, thinking that if 1 person had that question, others did too, and maybe peers could help each other out too. But the students HATED that discussion board and they did not use it. Then one of his students mentioned the GroupMe app that they used in another class for the same purpose, so my professor put together a group, and it worked really well.

    1. Hi Heath,

      You are really getting to a core issue surrounding pedagogy and (mobile) technology: the problem of values and ethics (or lack thereof.) And your conclusion–talking about how tech is just a tool and it’s really the onus of the user to wield that power responsibly–this is a great lesson worth sharing. I appreciate that you are thinking about how to create a learning environment that reflects both your and your students’ values. That kind of inclusive pedagogy will certainly engage students and show them that you do care. This notion of being ready for constant change and flexibility is huge! You’re right, what worked for students before won’t necessarily always work, so we have to be ready to make adjustments and fine-tune what we are doing for each set of students.

      1. Sara,
        Thank you for the comments. I’m glad that I am not alone in my thinking. I think the concept of technology as a tool is often overlooked when we have conversations about how technology impacts both education in particular and society in general and I am glad that other people are on board.

    2. Sarah,
      I really liked your example. As a generally reluctant embracer of technology my natural inclination would be to stick with the platform that I was already familiar with, but succeeding in the classroom sometimes means adapting to what works for your students and not just for you.

  4. Hey Heath,
    You beautifully captured many emotions here. There are many thoughts that came up while reading your post. First of all, the Central Authentication System. Yes, it is a great system for security but has many lapses. My friend was visiting India and he became technologically handicapped as he could not access any university system because his phone was broken. After trying multiple sources he was able to contact help desk. So, they should definitely have a temporary pass or something. Second, I really liked your statement, “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 is such a basic requirement. Restricting something completely sometimes have a far worse effect. It should evolve as per requirement.
    The last point is about values. You have described it in such a brilliant perspective. No matter how advance is the technology, we should never ever forget that it is created by humans and that it should never have the upper hand. Mix and match however much you like but ultimately you should be in control. And as long as humans are valued, I am sure the society will progress in a positive manner. Thanks for the blog!

  5. Hi, Health,

    I really love your ideas that “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”. I believe that teachers are only qualified to make various requests to students only if they fully respect the students. If the course is very lively, interesting, and passionate, then the student will actively listen and participate. Conversely, if the course is very boring, students may spend time on their phones and laptops.

  6. Hey Heath, Great post! First of all, I hate when I forget my cell phone at home and can’t login to Canvas or HokieMart. Two-factor definitely seems to go against Open Pedagogy, which we will also be discussing today. However, getting back to technology in the classroom, I love that you’ve acknowledged that our experiences growing up will be completely different from the experience of our students and that part of our job will be to keep up with the rapidly evolving Information/Digital Age. I agree that it is our responsibility as teachers to engage students and demonstrate the value in our instruction. However, I don’t think that this is any different from when we were in school. I actually think that with the technology available right now, we are in a better position to engage students (e.g., with digital media). Though, like you’ve mentioned, we need to use the technology in impactful and appropriate ways. I look forward to discussing this further in class this evening.

  7. Hi Heath, I love your post! I also grew up in a time when there mobile phone or smart phone did not even exist! Social media also did not creep into our lives. Classrooms were free of devices other than microphones! However, that did not stop students getting distracted during classes. I remembered my classmates making boats, birds or planes with their notebook pages or playing criss-cross in the middle of the lecture. I would be honest, sometimes (when I was way too bored), I joined them too. Then I also has classes when we were engaged, not because we were forced to, because those classes were truly engaging. When I read the chapter “Engaged Pedagogy” by Bell Hooks, I could relate that concept to those classes that were truly enjoying. I could relate how some teachers were capable of putting effort in creating a relationship or bond with the students through lectures and their communication style. In that note, I agree with you that it is on us whether we want to use technology in the classroom (and if so how) to improve the learning process or not.

  8. Heath,

    Thank you for your post! I agree with your idea that what works one semester may not work the next, so we need to be able to adapt. There is such importance in the ability to refocus on what is important in the classroom (what is the goal of this class? what are we trying to learn? how do we want to conduct ourselves?). I personally am going to try to also explain to my students why my policies are the way you are- you’re right, being open and honest about our choices can help students understand WHY policies are the way they are, and listening to them in their opinions can help us all to understand how technology affects their performances.

  9. Thank you for sharing your interesting story! I really agree with you that technology is becoming an important part of our life so we cannot prevent them completely from our classes, especially with Virginia Tech’s Central Authentication System (One friend of mine didn’t have a cell phone but had no choice but to buy a cell phone to access his VT email!) Even more, the number of educational apps have been growing greatly and I feel we need to accommodate them in class without having the students distracted. This has to be done with a flexible syllabus that regulates technology properly.

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