Ban Devices from the Class or Help Learners Develop Self-Regulation?

In this recent Washington Post article, the journalist tells the story of Clay Shirky’s decision to ban devices from his NYU class. Shirky explains that he previously left the choice up to students. He considered it a challenge to be more interesting than the devices, and thought it appropriate to leave the responsibility of managing the devices to the students. The following quote introduces part of his reason for the change.

Despite these rationales, the practical effects of my decision to allow technology use in class grew worse over time. The level of distraction in my classes seemed to grow, even though it was the same professor and largely the same set of topics, taught to a group of students selected using roughly the same criteria every year. The change seemed to correlate more with the rising ubiquity and utility of the devices themselves, rather than any change in me, the students, or the rest of the classroom encounter.

The article continues by pointing to research about the negative effects of multi-tasking and Shirky’s conclusion that there was more at play than a simple student choice. Instead, he argued that the presence of the devices forced students to struggle between paying attention in class and an “involuntary and emotional reaction.” He goes on to explain that he sees “teaching as a shared struggle…working together to help defend their precious focus against outside distractions.” 

Reading the article, there is plenty with which I can wholeheartedly agree. The growing research about multi-tasking, for example, is increasingly convincing. Multi-tasking has many downsides, including decreasing attention and focus, something that could certainly decrease learning as students grapple with new and complex ideas. More broadly, I welcome the wonderfully critical and reflective thinking about the nature and impact of technology in our lives. This is an important part of learning to thrive and survive in an increasingly technological age. Without taking time to consider the affordances and limitations, we easily succumb to mindless acceptance.

Yet, these very areas of agreement also lead me to think about alternatives to Shirky’s decision. If he held to an educational philosophy like educational essentialism, I would get it. He is the parent/teacher and his students/children need him to set most of the rules in lieu of their underdeveloped frontal lobes. Daddy knows best. Yet, in the article, Shirky points out that he does not hold to such a parent/child philosophy, but instead sees teaching as more of a shared experience, a “shared struggle”, an adventure (at least in part) in co-learning. Given such a philosophy, I wonder about alternative solutions. Consider the following five alternatives:

1. Provide students with access to some of the readings that led to his discovery/epiphany. Set aside some time in class for a robust discussion and exploration of the topic together. It may be that he did this, but it went beyond the scope of the article.

2. Set up a media journal assignment for students, where they logged their use of the devices during class. This would invite students to become more conscious about how the technology is impacting their experience in the class, also potentially leading to self-discoveries and robust c0-learning. It would also provide opportunity to compare different methods and strategies employed by students to leverage the devices in helpful ways.

3. Establish tech-less days and other days that are open. Or, based upon the planned activities for a given class, have students collectively vote on the “class rules”, learning to think through the issues together and make informed decisions.

4. Turn this into a class experiment with four groups. Group 1 uses devices when and however they want. Group 2 uses devices, but specifically focused upon learning strategies and supporting apps (note-taking, etc.). Group 3 uses devices, but they are charged to focus upon identifying strategies that best help them learn and focus, sharing their finding with others in the group (similar to group 2 but less prescribed). Group 4 refrains from any use of the devices in class. See if you can’t discover some patterns. Use the different group experiments to help students think through the issues more fully, and to discover the impact of different practices upon their learning.

5. Have students individually or collectively find existing research about the impact of devices in the classroom, using it to make informed decisions about their own usage.

Each of these five seem to align with Shirky’s stated philosophy of a teaching and learning as a “shared struggle” , and they do so by not banning the use of devices, but inviting students into the exploration and decision-making process. After all, these students will not have a parent to set these rules throughout their lives. Why not use this as a chance to help them learn to self-regulate? I understand that one argument against these might be that such exercises will detract from the main content and purpose of the class, but I contend that it can be done without having any effect on the overall student learning. In fact, by adding these elements of thinking about thinking and learning about learning, he is likely helping them think even more deeply about the course content.

Shirky is a brilliant thinker about new media. I value and learned a great deal from two of his books (Cognitive Surplus, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations). In fact, it would seem to me that his work around collaboration in the digital age might provide alternate insights into how to address the identified problem of attention-distracting practices in the classroom, insights like one or more of the ideas listed above. However, I do not write this as a criticism of the decision in his class. I don’t have all the facts nor do I fully understand the context in which he made this decision. Nonetheless, the article provides me with an opportunity to reflect on the broader conversation about the role of devices in the classroom, considering some of the options available to educators. In doing so, I am compelled to frame the discussion around a question that is larger than how to get students more fully attentive in a single class. Instead, I am asking, “How can we best help prepare young people to thrive as discerning consumers of devices in a digital age?”