David Seelow, Ph.D.©
Few problems confront today’s faculty more persistently and directly than students’ screen dependence and its distracting nature. Smart phones seem sutured to students and their own self reports indicate how big a problem teenager see their often compulsive checking of screens to be (72 % often check messages as soon as they wake up, Jiang 2018). Although not meeting the psychiatric criteria for a medical diagnosis according to DSM-V, Internet Gaming Addiction is under study, and with that others are sure to follow.1 Students check screens for text messages, social media posts and pictures, games and so on. Alerts often intrude on phones beckoning for a response and just the possession of a cell phone appears to distract college students’ attention (Medonza, et al 2019).
Neurologist Adam Gazzaley (2016) has conducted considerable neuroscience research on how technology contributes to today’s distracted mind especially the diminishment of cognitive controls such as attention and metacognition. Psychologist Sherry Turkle (2014) from MIT has presented the strongest case for the dangers of technology dependence. She shows how youth seem unable to be alone, incapable of sitting with themselves even when they are physically alone, resulting in the paradox of a technological connection fostering social isolation or the ironic state of “connected alone.”
Instructors have limited control over the culture outside the classroom, but they have the authority and capability of using the classroom space and time to confront this cultural reality. Five strategies have proved extremely beneficial for me in helping students understand, reflect on and develop counter strategies for the negative impact of technology on their learning performance.
A Thought Experiment: School the Old Fashioned Way
Philosophers are found of thought experiments, which test one’s ability to think through possibilities and alternative explanations or solutions to complex realities.2 For this exercise, I create a scenario where a foreign cyberattack has brought down the internet during the fourth week of classes. Students must continue their current classwork without any internet connectivity until the connection is restored, which I project as a month. Students must write out a plan for how they are going to complete their required work over the next month and then write a 250 word reflection on how disconnecting has impacted their studies. Without fail, students report a beginning panic, but once they adjust to the new reality they often gain a greater appreciation for skills, where they are frequently deficient as well as a deeper understanding about how the relationship between effort and learning. Too often students, high school and college age, make a simplistic equation between convenience and efficiency, i.e. Google makes finding sources and doing research easy, but easy does not translate to effective. I remind them that a fast food restaurant is convenient, but very unhealthy, and that going to a market, purchasing fresh food and cooking it yourself requires significant more time and effort but also has many long term health benefits, and so too, with learning.
In this scenario, students now must schedule a meeting with their professor and go to an office hour. They are less likely to skip a class because now they must take effective notes (a deteriorating skill) and cannot rely on the Learning Management System. Students time management skills improve, and most valuable for me, they now must go to the library and learn to do firsthand research by searching for relevant books by using a classification system (imagine a card catalogue today!) taking notes, and organizing those notes in an effective fashion. An overwhelming percentage of the students feel they would learn more if they attended college in a world without the Internet.
Letters: The Write Way
With faculty of my generation or, some before, graduate school often required reading copies of handwritten letters by major contributors to whatever field we specialized in. For me, reading John Keats famous letter on ‘negative capability’ (21 December 1817)3 was a revelation. Sylvia Plath’s (2017) letters, censored and not, are a treasure trove for understanding this tortured poet’s life and creative process. In history, how about the letter between John Adams and Abigail Adams?(2015),4 or those of the Apostle Paul5 or Martin Luther King’s (2007) “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (16 April 1963)?6King invokes the Apostle Paul (2015) at the very beginning of his letter indicting how they form a Christian tradition of spreading the truth. All these handwritten letters have monumental importance to history. What will future historians make of emails?
In this assignment, I ask students to send an email to someone who lives outside their commuting distance and then write a handwritten letter to a person they would like to correspond with. I require a receipt from the post office to verify that they have sent the letter. As with Google research, email is easy, convenient and frequently thoughtless. Spelling and grammar mistakes are common, and feelings most often casual. The handwritten letters, students note, require time- lots of time and thought. You must write neatly so the receiver can read the letter and mistakes are costly because they require you to rewrite the entire letter not just hit a delete key. You must also have paper and pen- what kind of paper and pen can matter considerably, and, then of course, you must put the letter in an envelope, address it correctly, walk or drive to a post office, purchase a stamp and send it. Many students have never been inside an actual post office. After sending the letter, the sender must wait sometime for a response. For this exercise, the response is often a phone call, but up to a week after the student posted the letter.
What students learn from this exercise is that handwritten letters require more effort, more thought, and more care than most emails. A handwritten letter, students report is more personal and they typically choice a person they care about- a grandparent for instance, that they want to express their care for, as the destination for their letter. What better example of affective or social emotional learning?
Twitter and New Media Communication
In my experience, students tend to use Twitter much less often than sibling sites like Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram. Consequently, this new media communication tool presents a learning opportunity. The tool’s constraints of 280 characters forces students to think closely about their words and how they can use such constraints to their benefit by use of hyperlinks, images, photos and hash tags. Furthermore, Twitter helps students develop a professional network with lasting benefits. At the same time, Twitter offers many lessons on how hate campaigns are enabled by social media with the Gamergate# phenomenon being an excellent case study. My lesson is reproduced below.
Twitter has become an increasing valuable and powerful communication tool. The current president conducts much of his national policy agenda through Twitter bypassing traditional protocol. Twitter has spurred protest movements like MeToo# and been a tool for conducting hate and harassment campaigns. For better and/or worse, this new media tool is important to understand. You will discover, as your career emerges, that Twitter can be invaluable for attracting business, building a community or brand, and developing a network. This challenge will help you understand and use this online communication tool effectively.
1. Pick someone to follow on Twitter. This can be an organization such as CNN, a team like the New York Yankees, or a magazine like @The Atlantic, etc
2. Write down the name of the person and their Twitter ID, e.g. @oprah
3. Explain why you chose to follow this person or organization.
4. How many current followers does he, she or they have?
5. Summarize their activity on Twitter between a 3 to 5 day time span in one paragraph. Comment on what they Tweeted about, and responses to their Tweets.
6. Copy and paste 3 of their Tweets during this period.
7. What is your Twitter handle? If you do not have one, choose one you might use should you use Twitter in the future. Explain how you chose this name?
8. Write an original Tweet (280 characters maximum) on a topic that matters to you.
9. Respond to a Tweet by the person you are following and copy and paste into your document for this challenge.
10. Write a 250-word summary of your entire Twitter experience during this challenge. Think about, what makes an effective Tweet? Is Twitter a useful communication tool for your prospective career or hobbies/interests and activities? Explain why or why not.
This exercise hones students’ analytic ability as well as introducing them to the positive value an often underused tool (for students) can be. I am often pleasantly surprised by the interesting choices students make in deciding who to follow and how much they learn about those people or organizations that they did not know before. The exercise often dispels myths about celebrities on one hand, and helps students connect with worthwhile causes or identify with organizations- like their own school sports team- on the other hand.
The Distorting Mirror of Social Media: Overcoming the Popularity Contest
Students use Facebook, Instagram, Snap Chat and other new media platforms much more than they tend to use Twitter. As with any new technology, tech platforms have healthy and unhealthy, productive and wasteful applications. Facebook presents a host of concerns, both from the perspectives of security/privacy and the platform’s computational way of suggesting “friends”. However, one of the most troubling aspects of Facebook like platforms for youth has to do with the notion of popularity. Users can easily be swept into a whirlwind of middle school like peer groups- as they leave high school and college-the pressure for “likes” or being popular based on clicks and other superficial indicators of value. The platform and its siblings encourage narcissism “gone wild” in their cultivation of “celebrity status” or “celebrity worship”. Rather than analyze the special psychological factors of Facebook’s appeal, I prefer letting students experience the deeper ramifications of such platforms on their own sense of self.
In the British science fiction series Black Mirror Episode “Nosedive” from Season Three, the protagonist Lacie Pound (Bryce Dallas Howard) strives to improve her social standing in a futuristic world where every interaction receives a rating that determines one’s status on a 5-point scale. For example, an interaction with a Starbucks’s barista will be rated by you- how did the barista serve you, say 4.8 because he was friendly, prompt and gracious, and you, in turn, will be rated by the barista, maybe a 3.7 because you were rude or looking at your phone instead of taking the change. The ratings give you social capital-even better than a bank account, in some sense, because to live in a certain neighborhood or belong to a desirable club you need a minimum rating which is often quote high. Consequently, there is pressure for you to always perform well in public.
For this mission pick one day over the next week and spend a block of time- 8 hours minimum, rating your primary interactions during that time block. Rate the person you interact with and then also rate what you think that person would rate you. Use a 5.0 scale like on the show. After you complete the day’s ranking briefly explain how this activity made you feel and explain what would you think about a near future society where this social rating is common practice.
Went to the Town of Colonie Library to return an interlibrary loan and check out a book. I gave the circulation desk clerk a 4.0. She was pleasant, took the book and put it safely aside. She gave me a 4.5 for returning the book on time and pointing out to her it was an interlibrary loan. I gave the information librarian a 3.8 because he had no good reason as to why the second floor was closed. Furthermore, he said he would retrieve a book when I specifically asked to browse the stacks. He rated me a 2.0 because I said the idea of a public library closing a floor was ridiculous and my that trip to the library was wasted. I was curt and not pleasant.
I do not recall any student being favorable toward this dystopian world. The exercise pushes students to examine social media platforms whose benefit they take for granted, but whose corrosive moral consequences such as the pervasive invasion of privacy and monetization of pain are they are rarely aware of.
Walden Redux: Technology Against Itself
Shelly Turkle has a genuine worry about how social media technology paradoxically isolates students or disconnects them from each other. Even more she writes about how technology alienates youth from themselves. Students fail to engage in face to face conversation and the ubiquity of the cell phone deprives them of solitude (pp. 245-277). The loss of solitude, in turn, excludes contemplation and reflection like Dr. Martin Luther King achieved in the Birmingham Jail or that one of King’s models, Henry David Thoreau, accomplished, when he “retired” from society for Walden Pond in 1845 to strengthen his self-reliance and life “deliberatively”. What teacher or professor does not want his or her students to live a more deliberative life?
Nothing replaces having students read and work through Thoreau’s text, but an excellent way to engage students in Thoreau’s project is to use the video games as the tool to engage Thoreau. Asking students to play Walden: A Game (2017), designed by Tracy Fullerton and the USC Innovation Lab provides the perfect choice for bringing students into Thoreau’s world of daily living. The game’s supporting website has a full curriculum, so I just note this as an ideal resource for teaching reflective learning through technology.7
A final and related strategy inaugurated by University of Washington Professor David Levy is the use of mindfulness mediation in the classroom (2013).8 This contemplative practice encourages students to reflect on their learning, as they disengage from technology, and, then reengage the technology in a more thoughtful fashion, while cultivating a greater use of solitude, returning youth to the haven of the bedroom as a site of privacy and personal reflection.
1. Significant work on internet addiction and its various manifestations have been done by the late psychologist Kimberley Young, founder of the Center for Internet Addiction, http://netaddiction.com/, and Dr. David Greenfield founder and director of The Center for Internet and technology Addiction, https://virtual-addiction.com/. I recommend all teachers and that parents become familiar with these sites as well as the excellent work of Irish cyberpsychology’s Mary Aiken, The Cyber Effect. Spiegel & Grau, 2016, especially chapter 2, “Designed to Addict,” pp. 46-87.
2.Philospogher Robert Nozick’s brilliant thought experiment about a hypothesized experience machine is perfectly applicable to students and would make a good 6th strategy. In the experiment, you plug into a virtual reality machine and enjoy whatever experiences you choose- a personal utopia. Would you plug into such a machine? While plugged in there is no way to tell that the experience is artificial so that it will feel as real as reality. With the invention of Oculus Rift and other virtual reality head sets such experiments are now much more possible and more relevant than when Nozick presented it in the 1970s. You can read the details of the experiment in his classic book Anarchy, State and Utopia. Basic Books, 1974. In general, people will not choose the machine and refer reality, which, inevitably, is much more mundane than the imagination produces. Why people make the choice they do provides an extended lesson in decision making, personal values and much else.
3. A digital version of Keats famous letter is housed at George Mason University, http://mason.gmu.edu/~rnanian/Keats-NegativeCapability.html.
4. Many digital versions of John and Abigail Adams letters can be found online thanks to the The Massachusetts Historical Society, Adams Family Papers, An Electronic Archive
https://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/archive/letter/, Massachusetts Historical Society.
5. An interesting discussion of the Apostle Paul’s letter can be found online at, “Letters of the Apostle Paul,” N.D., Early Church History, https://earlychurchhistory.org/communication/letters-of-paul-the-apostle/, editor Sandra Sweeney Sliver. Web. Much of the New Testament is written in letter or epistolary form by Paul stressing the importance of letter writing as style for serious content and messages. He signs some of his letter as Apostle for Christ or to Send for Christ, a deep identification with is God In other words, the message of Paul’s letters is sacred. Unlike an email, a handwritten letter carries the author’s signature or autograph, mark of sincerity and ownership.
6. King’s letter can be found online at various sites including the University of Pennsylvania’s African Studies Center: https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html.
7. Walden, A Game website, https://www.waldengame.com/.
8. A good discussion of Professor Levy’s work on mindfulness in the classroom is Hartel, Jenna, Nguyen, Anh Thu and Guzik, Elysia. “Mindfulness Mediation in the Classroom,” Journal for Library and Information Science. Vol. 58, No. 2 (Spring)April 2017, 112-115. Print.
Gazzaley, Adam and Rosen, Larry D. The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World. MIT Press, 2016.
Keats, John. Selected Letters. Ed. John Barn. Penguin Classics, 2015.
King Jr., Martin Luther. I have a Dream/Also, Letter from Birmingham Jail. Perfection Learning, 2007.
Paul: The Apostle’s Life, Letters, and Thought. Ed. E.P. Sanders. Fortress Press, 2015.
Plath, Sylvia. The Letters of Sylvia Plath, 2 Volumes, Eds. Peter K. Steinberg and Kara V. Kukes,Vol. 1:1940-1956, Viol. 2: 1956-1963. Harper, 2017.
Jiang, Jingjing. “How Teens and Parents Navigate Screen Time and Decide Distractions,” PEW Research Center, Pew Research Center website, 8/22/2018, retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2018/08/22/how-teens-and-parents-navigate-screen-time-and-device-distractions/ 1/22/2020. Web.
The Letters of John and Abigail Adams. Penguin Classics, 2003.
Parry, Marc. “You’re Distracted. This Professor Can Help.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 24, 2013, retrieved from https://www.chronice.com/article/You’re-Distracted-This/138079, 8/14/2018. Web.
Schur, Michael and Jones, Rashida. “Nosedive,” Black Mirror, Netflix, 2016.
Turkle, Sherry. Alone Together: Why We Expect more from Technology and Less from Each Other, Third Edition, Basic Books, 2014.Walden, A Game. Lead