Leading technologist professor Clay Shirky bans use of personal electronics in his classroom

Clay Shirky is a leading technologist who teaches theory and practice of social media at NYU.  He is an advocate and activist for social technology, crowd-sourcing and the free culture movement, but is now asking the students in his Fall seminar to refrain from using laptops, tables, and phones in class.

I came late and reluctantly to this decision — I have been teaching classes about the internet since 1998, and I’ve generally had a laissez-faire attitude towards technology use in the classroom. This was partly because the subject of my classes made technology use feel organic, and when device use went well, it was great. Then there was the competitive aspect — it’s my job to be more interesting than the possible distractions, so a ban felt like cheating. And finally, there’s not wanting to infantilize my students, who are adults, even if young ones — time management is their job, not mine.

Clay goes on to describe how year after year, his students seem to become more distracted, and when he occasionally tells them “lids down” it is like a breath of fresh air in the room.    Clay uses Jonathan Heidt’s metaphor of the elephant as a useful illustration.  According to Heidt, the mind is like an elephant of emotions being ridden by a rider of the intellect.  The rider can see and plan ahead, and together rider and elephant can accomplish amazing things.  But the emotional elephant is far more powerful, and can react skittishly and be driven off course — or worse, stampede.  If intellect and emotion are in conflict, usually the elephant wins.

What makes this intellectual-emotional battle especially one-sided is that device operating systems and social media are designed to grab your attention and distract you, by manipulating your emotional urge to stay connected and not miss out on something really exciting.  Multitasking does not help, in fact it fools people into thinking they’re being more productive than they are, and it interferes with long term memory.

People often start multi-tasking because they believe it will help them get more done. Those gains never materialize; instead, efficiency is degraded. However, it provides emotional gratification as a side-effect. (Multi-tasking moves the pleasure of procrastination inside the period of work.) This side-effect is enough to keep people committed to multi-tasking despite worsening the very thing they set out to improve.

Evidence like this has been building for a while, but what really changed things for Clay was the growing understanding that the distractions also affect all the other students nearby!

The final realization — the one that firmly tipped me over into the “No devices in class” camp — was this: screens generate distraction in a manner akin to second-hand smoke. A paper with the blunt title Laptop Multitasking Hinders Classroom Learning for Both Users and Nearby Peers says it all:

We found that participants who multitasked on a laptop during a lecture scored lower on a test compared to those who did not multitask, and participants who were in direct view of a multitasking peer scored lower on a test compared to those who were not. The results demonstrate that multitasking on a laptop poses a significant distraction to both users and fellow students and can be detrimental to comprehension of lecture content.

So Clay is now asking his students to refrain from using any technology in class.  His full essay is a must read for anyone who teaches — or hosts meetings where the laptops and smart phones are active.  Personal electronic devices and social media are incredibly powerful, but you need to use them or not.  And if you are using them, then you can’t be doing something else well at the same time.  Unless that something else doesn’t actually employ your brain.  Like texting and driving, there’s no safe middle ground.

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