There’s No App for That

Dan Kemp

Texting. Twitter. Facebook. Instagram. Pinterest. If it is accessible, students look at it during lectures. Rob Richardson, a student at California State University, Chico, has a solution, an app called Pocket Points, which “gives students rewards for not using their phones during class.” The more time passes without a student touching the phone, the more points he receives; and more points gets him more coupons to local businesses. Richardson hopes that technological incentives can minimize technological distractions.

This is just one of the many remedies offered to cure the epidemic of young twenty-somethings spending too much time exercising their thumbs in class. Scott Titsworth proposed that teachers incorporate technology in course periods by using it for class related activities. Ed Tech innovator PJ Simpson suggests that tweeting, image posting, or taking polls are useful for class and seems to think that these activities will not encourage students to use devices for irrelevant purposes. Professor of Teaching and Learning Maryellen Weimer argues, somewhat naively, that simply making students aware of the costs of tech use will deter them from habitually reaching into their pockets.

And the costs are many. A study by Jeffrey Kuznekoff and Titsworth showed that students who did not use phones in class wrote down “97% more outstanding answers in their notes,” recalled 87% “more minimally sufficient answers,” and “in general did substantially better at recalling information from the lecture” than the students who were distracted by cell phones. Another study by Andrew Lepp, Jacob Barkley, and Aryn Karpinksi showed that students who frequently used phones tended to have lower GPAs, higher anxiety, and generally less “satisfaction with life.” True, there are several studies that report the strengths of technology for learning—and yet there is something crucial about the parsimony of pen and paper and sustained attention.

The question for professors and administrators is a very old one: How do you reduce someone’s most cultivated habits? But the field in which it is being asked is new: the millennial addiction to portable lights and pictures.

But there’s more at stake here than the pedagogical question of how to teach students who have been trained to be distracted. Students and professors should approach classrooms and class time with reverence. Class is set aside from the daily grind to learn and reflect on complex ideas. Since complexity cannot be immediately comprehended, students require not only time but sustained time to see each unit of the complex whole. Interruption breaks the chain of reasoning and students are less able to see how things fit together.

According to some professors, if technology can be used for things relevant to the course, then it’s no hindrance; hence, the above suggestions that these habits can be harnessed for purposes in the classroom. An in-class exercise such as tweeting about the “main point of the lecture” may have educational value; synthesizing ideas into a coherent thought teaches students to think with discernment. But this has little to do with why students preoccupy themselves with these outlets during class in the first place. Students want to stay up to date on what their friends are doing. They want to see that new sunrise picture on Instagram, or the funny hashtag trend, or that next thing, and that next thing, and... Five “constructive” in-class minutes of tech will do nothing to break its bonds on student attention.

Some professors and administrators admit that all of this is a problem, but they doubt that there is a solution. The incentive based innovation of “Pocket Points” appears to be the best of a bad situation. The spirit of the effort is laudable, even endearing, and may partially succeed. But it will only motivate those who already have some technological self-control. Less responsible students will not change. If they are willing to forfeit their tuition money, they will forfeit the incentives of the app.

Technological solutions to technological problems puts the cart before the horse. We need to rehabilitate students’ mindfulness and attention. We need a form of education that draws their attention to higher and more wonderful things. Submerging them in more technology is not the answer. There’s no app for defeating vice.

Image: ETEC 510

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