Digital Pedagogy

I was interested in John Warner’s article in Inside Higher Ed which argues that instructors should not ban laptops in the classroom because learning how to deal with distractions from technology is an important skill that students need to learn, one way or another. Perhaps it is counterintuitive to posit that learning how to deal with distractions is a professional skill, but I actually do agree with this argument. I can say from experience that it takes some discipline to put down Email and Instagram to focus on a difficult, boring project, but learning how to set these boundaries with myself is part of the workflow of a typical day in my life, and I don’t think there is a way to avoid learning this skill. Unfortunately, we are now often expected to check email multiple times throughout the day to make sure that we receive important updates, and there is a lot of pressure to give immediate responses to non-urgent problems. Meanwhile, all of this distracts from our ability to truly focus on the work that we are supposed to be doing, such as reading and writing. I have heard some writers refer to these more boring, sustained tasks as “deep work.” Some claim that if we truly want to be successful at getting the most out of deep work, we should quit social media entirely so that our brains stop expecting the constant dopamine rush of fresh online content. This may not be possible for those whose jobs depend on social media. While academics usually aren’t required to post on social media, doing so may be encouraged in some contexts (it also comes with risks). Other professions such as journalism rely on the constant flow of information from the internet. As graduate students, however, we need to learn how to set boundaries with our attention so that we can focus. Since essentially all of the reading that I do occurs on a computer screen, there is no way around the fact that I need to be able to be using my electronic device while managing the temptations of distraction. I believe that my students need to learn how to manage this for themselves as well, so I don’t feel that banning laptops is the right approach (and obviously it would not work during the pandemic).

I was also interested in Kirschner and Bruyckere’s article about the myth of multitasking. First, the article claims that the idea that children born after the advent of the digital age automatically know how to use technology better is a “myth.” Such students still need to be guided in learning how to use technologies effectively and efficiently, and teachers shouldn’t assume that they are unqualified for this task. The article also discusses the cognitive science around the myth of multitasking, a term that actually emerged from computer science. They discuss that the human brain cannot actually do more than one non-automatic thing at a time (I think it is interesting that this idea is reflected in ancient philosophy as well as modern cognitive science). Furthermore, there is a significant loss of efficiency when the brain shifts from one activity to another. So, switching from social media to schoolwork not only involves a loss of time, but also a loss of efficiency or perhaps even concentration ability. This relates to my earlier comments about deep work. I feel that working on projects productively requires the ability to sustain attention to one task over a significant length of time, so that I start to really “wrap my brain around” the problem that I am thinking about. Ideally, I am most productive when I can focus on one project for several days in a row. During a graduate school semester, this is only available for me during final exam period, and then only with careful planning to make sure all of the work is getting done. But I am starting to understand why many faculty complain so much about service and teaching responsibilities. It isn’t just about the time these things require–its about the loss of focus on one single project. To bring this back to digital distractions, I don’t agree that banning devices helps students learn the true lesson, because I think the true lesson is that students need to learn how to use the devices to gain the advantage of digital technology (better ergonomics, faster speed of typing, better access to research resources, etc.) without the drawback of falling prey to distractions. As future professionals, students will be in charge of regulating themselves, and I agree that they should be learning these skills in college, rather than saving this for the workforce.

Finally, I enjoyed Stommel’s article about Digital Pedagogies, and his passionate invocation of the need to separate pedagogy from rote instruction. He argues this by invoking diverse philosophers include Thoreau, Emerson, Dewey, and Freire. Of course, these philosophers put together do not reveal anything like a monolithic approach. While all of these thinkers are interested in transformative education and self-directed learning, I take their political approaches to be quite different. While Freire is working within a Marxist tradition that can more clearly define oppression and liberation measured through collective conditions, Thoreau and Emerson espoused a more individualistic, ascetic rebellion against modern society. Dewey was clearly committed to democracy and the way that education can prepare individuals for democratic participation, which perhaps would place his thinking in conflict with Marxist alternatives. I bring this up because while many of us agree that the most effective classroom involves creativity, spontaneity, and the ability to be in the moment, the politics of the classroom is more difficult to define. Is the choice to present certain topics as apolitical in fact a political choice? How careful should instructors be about refraining from presenting their views? To connect this to digital learning, it can be difficult through the lens of a computer screen to gauge student reactions to a difficult or controversial topic. This isn’t helped by the fact that many of my students refuse to turn their cameras on. So how do we know, when we are separated by so many screens, whether the students are truly engaged, or truly learning?

3 thoughts on “Digital Pedagogy

  1. Thanks for sharing such an insightful blog response! I go back and forth as to whether students should be allowed to have computers or phones out in the classroom, as I am often frustrated when students in my classes have their computers on and are playing YouTube videos that are nearly impossible to not get distracted by; however, I agree that students need to be able to focus even with these distractions because the availability of the internet and social media at our fingertips is definitely not going away. While I do believe that there are some great benefits and research that supports hand written notes and restricting the use of computers in class, especially when the class is centered around more open discussion, I enjoyed seeing your perspective on this issue and the importance of developing skills to rule out distractions as much as possible!

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    1. Wonderful reflection. I was particularly impacted by your thoughts on politics in the classroom. I agree with you stating that choosing to keep a topic “apolitical” is a political choice. In our modern society, simple things have turned into political statements, and the decision to remain non-affiliated can create pressure to divulge one’s opinions. I have had many conversations about this impacting the classroom. One remark can divide a classroom or turn students against you. However, I worry that, by doing this, we are failing to expose students to different opinions in an educational format. Similar to electronic distractions, we could also be failing to prepare students for a future where they need to navigate politics with their personal and profession decisions.

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  2. I really enjoyed your blog post. I have been teaching for three semesters now and have decided that I do not mind if students use their laptops during class. I thought that I would have a problem with it but I have decided that my students are adults and that they can choice to listen or not. I feel that the students can multi task and that as long as they are aware that they may be missing pertinent information it is up to them if they want to be on their laptops. I do have one rule, however. I teach public speaking so I ensure that the students are not on their laptops or phones, for that matter, while other students are speaking. I do this in order to allow all students to feel like they are being heard and listened to. Me, as a teacher, can deal with students not paying attention, but I am aware that novice speakers may not be able to deal with that. I just saw your post and wanted to weigh in on how I handle the situation of using technology in the classroom. Thanks again for your post.

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