Distracting Gadgets in the Classroom

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In a recent article in the Economist  about “Radio Silence” talks of the controversy brought about by a Yale professor’s decision to hold his lecture in a “dead spot”.

Nemerov, a art history professor was in search of a darker venue to project the works he would be lecturing about. He found a space that was not ideal in terms of lighting and seating capacity – yet he jumped all over it when he found that it had no wi-fi and cell phone signals were very weak to none in there. He chose this venue, despite excluding around 200 students (it seats 270 and avg attendance used toe in the 400+ range), because he felt it would provide less distractions for students.

Of course, the tech pundits jumped all over this attacking for being “old school” and thinking that a 60 minute lecture is any way to conduct a class. Some said that people who were distracted with Facebook were the same people who would be doodling or talking to friends or passing notes.

I totally disagree. I don’t have any scientific proof, but a laptop or device with connectivity is much more distracting than an empty page on your notebook. Further to that point, you can doodle while listening. You cannot update your status and check your wall while paying attention to a lecture.

The critics of his decision also state that there should not be a lecture conducted in the manner that he does and that his lectures should be online with open discussions. Some went as far as to say that if his lecture cannot captivate his audience then no amount of tricks will help.

As a high school teacher, and a tech teacher for that matter, I am very concerned with how distracting devices can be. When I walk around my lab I often catch kids trying to SMS or BBM their friends. Those working at a computer may look like they are working but in fact they are playing chess, checking scores, or youtube. They have learnt the shortcut keys to minimize their windows and I often hear furious clicking at the last second as I pass by someone I suspect to be distracted.

A notebook and book cannot provide the same amount of distraction. How many kids have you caught flipping to the next chapter to read what Napoleon is up to? What was his status? We would award that kid medals for reading ahead….”Good job buddy! I’m glad you are taking an interest in this unit”

Is there a middle ground? A proper use of technology in the classroom that is limited to what we want them to see and do? Yes. There’s gotta be an app for that 🙂 With Apple’s new digital text book move, I can see this as being a very good middle ground. An iPad with textbooks and organizational tools but no games or social networking and you now have the best of both worlds!

So I would like to know whether you feel laptops and mobile devices are more or less of a distraction in class and whether you feel students at the high school level can control their impulse to check FB status and more…

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