Suggestions from the Age of Distraction

Dec 12, 2007 by

A reading assignment for today: The Age of Distraction: The Professor or the Processor? by Michael Bugeja (published in The Futurist magazine)

The question that Bugeja poses: Are digital distractions the cause of lowered performance measures for students? He argues that we’ve spent a lot of money on technology in education. Have we seen results?

It’s a good question. It’s not an argument against technology, per se, I think he’s just making the point that we may need to retake our learning environments from technology distractions (like improper laptop use, cellphone texting, video games on calculators, etc.).

Bugeja writes about what he calles “interpersonal intelligence” which he defines as “knowing when, where, and for what purpose technology is appropriate or inappropriate.”

He suggests teaching incoming students some basic interpersonal intelligence. At my college, we have a seminar designed to teach students study skills, and perhaps this is where these questions belong, in addition to being reiterated in other freshman-level classes:

  • Are you being exploited by the media?
  • Is your internet impulse purchasing destroying your budget?
  • When has using technology distracted you from accomplishing something?
  • Do you have real-person communication skills, like meeting your neighbors or talking to the students in your group?
  • How is instant feedback different from critical thinking?

Hmm. I may need to revisit the third bullet point myself. I know that technology (specifically writing these blog posts) often distract me from other things I should be doing. But I do eventually get those tasks done too… just maybe at a sleep deficit. : )

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  1. Mighty Meg

    Those are interesting points. I don’t allow laptops in class (as there’s not much in recitation to use them for), but texting has definitely become an issue. In addition to taking the attention of the student who is texting, it’s often distracting to those around them and, ultimately, me.

  2. Robert

    I have to agree with meg on this texting issue. It is hard to identify when they are using the calculator / cell phone when they keep them in their lap. I am wondering if there is a device that can be used to jam the signals – add that to my Christmas list!

  3. Maria H. Andersen

    Even better, a device that intercepts the messages – like intercepting a note that’s being passed in class.

    Then again, maybe I don’t want to know what they’re saying!

  4. Michael Bugeja

    I must compliment this blog and those commenting on it for the conscientious interpretations of both my essay and intent.

    As director of a major journalism school, I am seeing the slow erosion of basic academic standards. Because I work at an institution of science and technology, I want our graduates to commit to understanding digital devices as technologists rather than merely as consumers.

    The example that I use to drive home the importance of critical thinking concerns math, and so it is appropriate to share that.

    David Ho, the physician who helped devise a therapy for AIDS, had all the medical technology in the world at his disposal. The technology helped identify one inhibitor after another, but the HIV virus kept mutating around it. Dr. Ho, however, understood math since boyhood. Instead of relying on technology to identify other types of inhibitors, with HIV mutating to render them ineffective, Dr. Ho calculated the mathematical odds of a virus mutating simultaneously around three inhibitors. This led to current treatment and made a fatal disease a treatable one.

    Yes, there are social issues regarding who can afford treatment; but these, too, require intense critical analyses so as to make one’s case to effect societal change. You cannot do that with the omnipresent distraction that pollutes the learning environment with interfaces programmed for revenue generation rather than for learning.

    Again, my thanks for not resorting to dismissal of my concerns, as often happens in the blogosphere, with the assumption that anyone who advocates effective use of technology also is criticizing it out of Luddite tendencies.

  5. Maria H. Andersen

    I thought I would comment in one more interesting link about this topic from Michael’s website: A poll about what students have done with technology during class:

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