Technology in the Classroom – The UCSD Guardian

Students and teachers must constantly make choices about the role of technology in classrooms, balancing diminishing attention spans, opportunities for distraction, and our ability to learn.

According to a Microsoft study, the average Gen Z member has an attention span of eight seconds, nearly 30% less than our millennial counterparts. These Gen Zs inhabit the lecture halls of UC San Diego, trying to earn their degrees in an infinite number of eight-second attention spans.

But what happens when the eight seconds are up, when we lose interest? When we feel the need to do something else, hear something else, think about something more interesting, or find another form of stimulation? Look at your phone, maybe. Skip to another section, shop that shirt you’ve been wanting, or reply to that text from your mom. How easy was that?

The ease with which each student makes the choice to redirect their attention is just one example of Gen Z’s ever-increasing ability to be distracted. It’s a constant tension between the desire to study, focus in the lecture and listen to what your professor has to say, and the restraint that requires you not to choose one of the millions of options waiting for you on another screen.

With the exponential growth of technology as a resource (and burden) in all aspects of our lives, it’s hard not to attribute our decline in attention to technology-related factors. Does our short attention span mean that students are unable to focus in lectures? Has our reduced attention span and ability to be distracted by electronics permanently hindered our concentration and learning?

Sociology professor Kevin Lewis said he believes in students’ ability to focus in a technology-free space.

“I think a lot of students have a really short attention span, but once we take away the opportunities to be distracted and try to meet them in that space, excited and enthusiastic, it’s fine,” he said.

On the first day of her class, Lewis asks her students to put away all devices and put them away until the end of the quarter, opting to take notes on paper instead. It aims to create a distraction-free classroom where students can best absorb and synthesize knowledge through long notes.

IN study that Lewis shared with his class at the beginning of each term, participants were tested on their comprehension ability in two different conditions: taking notes on paper and on a computer. Students who write tend to transcribe notes verbatim, revealing a shallower level of processing than those who take synthesized notes by hand.

Armand Tufenkian, a faculty member in the Department of Visual Arts, teaches his film classes in a similar technology-free environment. With the exception of thesis writing, where, of course, most students write their theses, Tufenkian asks students to leave their computers and devices. In the context of watching movies, he thinks the devices are more of a distraction than a learning tool.

Both Louis and Tufenkian are creating a space where students who need accommodation can get it when needed. Tufenkian noted that any student who has specific needs or requests will be accommodated with flexibility. Louis expressed a similar sentiment.

Lewis described the dilemma that accompanied his choice, especially in the wake of COVID-19 and alongside UCSD’s increasingly diverse population.

“I don’t like to accidentally separate [students with accommodations]I am not sure how to overcome it and that is my only hesitation,” he said.

Tufenkian and Lewis described the overall positive response from students to their request to rid the class of technology. But not every classroom cares about this kind of note-taking. Sixth Form student Hayden Kirkade said she chooses her note-taking strategy according to the class.

In faster courses that require copying a lot of information from slides, Kirkeide uses his laptop. Although she chooses to write when she feels it is necessary for the course, Kirkeide admits that her laptop in class can be distracting.

“If you’re stronger-willed than I am, you’ll probably pay more attention. I can be distracted,” she said.

Kirkeide isn’t the only one having trouble resisting temptation. It’s not uncommon to look to the left in class to see someone switching between screens, perhaps typing their notes while responding to messages on a split screen. Each student chooses their own academic or personal program during lectures.

Teachers can only imagine what goes on behind those screens, their view blocked by blinded laptop cases and the raucous thump of dozens of fingers tapping away at keyboards. There is neither visible nor audible difference between a distracted student and an attending one.

Eleanor Roosevelt College senior Sahar Alfatlawi said she believes teachers need to “keep up with the times.” Alfatlawi highlighted the pervasive nature of technology in our current learning, with many of our tests, resources and assignments existing in the online domain.

“We developed all our schools online, on Canvas…. It should be appropriate to have digital copies of things like notes,” she said. While she understood why some educators might take a more traditional approach—such as those teaching languages ​​requiring oral and written skills—she found it difficult to understand why other educators should be able to make that choice when the rest of the students’ educational experience revolves around technology.

Of course, some people might characterize the nature of tasks and tests as part of an entirely different realm from the ways in which we assess how content is learned. The purpose of going to school at all, attending lectures with professors, and sitting in class is to have a well-rounded and engaging educational experience. Shouldn’t part of that experience be defined by our presence in class, both mentally and physically, and isn’t that aspect of education distinct from the asynchronous features?

Instructors must find ways to be effective in this new learning environment. It’s their job to find a way to cater to the new generation, and it’s the students’ job to learn, whether technology plays a role or not. Lewis understands that it takes a certain amount of commitment and preparation to teach a group of students without the comfort of their laptops and phones in the classroom.

“You can’t just ask students to do something without meeting them in the space you’ve just created,” he said. Lewis does his best to foster an engaging space for students to learn without the pressure of copying copious amounts of information or spending hours without interaction or reflection.

Both Lewis and Tufenkian have also made the choice to stop podcasting their lectures in the wake of COVID-19. Lewis found that lecture attendance dropped dramatically when they were podcasted; his classrooms were sparsely filled with only a dozen students a day.

Students may choose to skip a class simply out of convenience. Why would you travel all the way to class at 8am when you can get three more hours of sleep and watch the lecture from the comfort of your bed just a few hours later? You could speed it up, use your phone while watching, and eat your breakfast while “attending” class.

As great as this sounds, can anyone really call this learning? The whole point of limiting the use of technology in the classroom is undermined when the lecture itself exists as an outgrowth of something abstract, distant, online.

“At what point does it become indistinguishable from an online class or a non-instructor class?” Lewis asked.

Kirkeide found he struggled to even watch lectures at all when they were podcasted or pre-recorded; forced to learn content solely from lecture slides or through assignments, she felt like she was actually taking a course without an instructor. Her performance dropped when she was unable to experience the class in person.

“I didn’t really learn anything … I had no motivation to learn, no motivation to participate,” Kirkeide said.

Lewis added: “Again, I think it’s a fundamentally different experience than engaging you to live and be together in that space.”

Although she struggles to watch podcasts, Kirkeide sees several advantages to recording the lectures. Students have the opportunity to review material they missed or did not understand, and the recordings serve as a kind of check on classroom events and behavior. However, when podcasts are an option, instructors may struggle to muster the motivation for their students to attend in person.

Kirkeide suggested that teachers encourage attendance in a variety of ways, perhaps with in-person activities that count as part of the grade but are not heavily weighted in grades, or by giving students extra credit for in-person attendance at a certain number of lectures. If students felt motivated to come to the lecture but were also able to look back on the content with podcasts, they would reap the benefits of both in-person learning and recorded content.

Educators who make the bold choice to ban technology, whether it’s banning laptops or turning down a podcast, aren’t just trying to interfere. They wrestle with the same dilemmas as students, making active choices about their methods. They must balance their own comfort and ability to engage classrooms with the well-being of their students’ educational experience.

Whether these choices are universally useful or even applicable in some classes is a question that remains unanswered.

“In a hypothetical world, without technology in the classroom, where no one uses laptops, cell phones, podcasts or PowerPoints, I think without a doubt it would be a more enjoyable space, a more learning space, a space where students feel like they were getting more for their education, community building and solidarity,” Lewis said.

In some ways, technology has turned students into consumers who want less for their money—less class time, fewer assignments, and less responsibility. As students weigh convenience, learning styles, and their technology-induced shrinking attention spans, educators will make the choices they feel are best for student learning, whether that means enforcing rules or not. Of course, a hypothetical world without technology remains a fantasy. Only time will tell how we deal with reality.

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