weapons of mass distraction

For the past few years, we have been bombarded with articles from innovative educators and watched inspirational speeches from tech titans who have promised to transform education with Wi-Fi, one to one devices, and engaging software applications. Teachers have had to sit through hours of professional development learning whatever their districts have deemed the latest and greatest tech tools in the classroom. Many teachers have bought into the hype and invested countless hours creating tech savvy lessons only to find that their customers haven’t bought into the panacea of technology in the classroom. Many of our students are not impressed by the glaring screens and their digitized education. They long for a return to books with pages to flip through instead of waiting for a screen to load. For the generation of digital natives, holding a pen and putting it to paper may offer a transformative experience or at least a momentary break from eye strain. Have we driven our students to the brink of an educational abyss by providing a classroom experience filled with constant distraction?

Many educators and experts are now speaking out about the dangers of technology in the classroom and are arguing in favor of limiting screen time. http://www.edweek.org/tm/articles/2017/03/21/a-call-for-fewer-screens-in-the.html?cmp=eml-enl-tu-news1-RM&intc=es  Speaking from personal experience, initially I embraced the new technologies but after a few years in a digital classroom, I find myself throwing out some of my tech tools and returning to paper and pen. After spending hours making Kahoots to try to make my lessons more engaging and fun, I’ve given up on using them as students have flipped my classroom and turned Kahoot into a tool for disengagement. The most fun they have playing Kahoot is devising funny but mostly obscene screen names. When the game is played, only the most competitive students stay in until the end and most freshmen boys can’t resist reaching over and choosing the wrong answers on their friends’ devices. Some teachers require students to use their real name and they count the Kahoot as a grade, but then you’ve turned what was supposed to be a game into an online assessment with a dose of public humiliation as students’ names and their scores are displayed on the screen.

Students equipped with devices have made me literally flip my classroom. I had to move my teacher desk to the back of the classroom so I can monitor what is on my students’ laptop screens in order to maintain their focus and prevent cheating. At any given moment, I will catch a few students online shopping, instant messaging, playing video games, or watching irrelevant youtube videos. Check out this photograph of what students were actually doing on their devices while their teacher lectured at the front of the classroom.

technology distraction

A quick glance will show that less than 50% of students are actually paying attention and are using their devices to appropriately follow the lesson. It takes a highly motivated student with incredible self control to use a laptop in the classroom and remain completely focused on the lesson. Keep in mind that this photo appears to be taken in a college setting where students are attending class of their own free will and not in your typical public high school classroom where the issue of tech distraction is actually much worse.

Having used technology in the classroom in both regular and Advanced Placement classrooms, I can tell you that technology in the classroom is much more effective when used with motivated student populations equipped with laptops rather than students who are already looking for any escape from the drudgery of academics who spend the day either hunched over a district issued tablet or trying to use their cellphone for educational purposes. At first I embraced my district’s one to one device initiative because the digital divide is a huge problem in our society, but unfortunately technology in the classroom has only manifested that digital divide in new ways. I can walk into any classroom at my school and immediately tell you whether it’s an AP classroom or regular classroom without even looking at the demographics. I just need to look at the screens in the room. If I see a room filled with Macbook Airs, it’s automatically an IB or AP classroom. If I see a room filled with students hunched over tiny cell phone screens, clunky district issued tablets, or staring blankly because they either don’t have a device, didn’t bring a device or their device is not charged, it screams regular classroom. What type of device a student brings to school has also become a status symbol. If a student wants to appear cool and wealthy, they must have a Macbook Air. The students forced to use the district tablet with its dangling keyboard and unattractive government issued protective black case often feel self-conscience because it immediately labels them as poor.

Unfortunately, technology has left teachers and students at the mercy of functioning Wi-Fi and the success of a lesson is now dependent on a student being responsible enough to bring a charged device to the classroom. This becomes even more problematic for teachers and students at the end of the school day when most students’ devices and even the teachers’ classroom set (if they are lucky enough to have one) may have lost their charge. I was unfortunate enough to have my annual observation occur at 2:00 in the afternoon with my regular level students. On any given day, out of a class of 30 students, only about five students come prepared with a charged tablet or lab top. I only have five tablets as a class set and by the end of the day most of those have lost their charge. That leaves 20 students with no way to participate in the lesson unless I allow them to use their cell phones. I gave away my class set of textbooks to another teacher because he had large inclusion classrooms and I new he really needed textbooks for those kids. So during the twenty minute span when an administrator actually sat through my lesson, half of my class was relying on using their cellphones which meant their heads were down focusing on the device between their legs which they were actually using to play video games with. One bright student who’s lab top recently broke and who’s cell phone had run out of charge chose to spend the last ten minutes of class spraying Listerine in his eyes as a form of entertainment. Since my student’s lab top has been out of service, his grade in my class has gone from a B to a D and instead of being on task he is constantly goofing off on his phone. I was so humiliated by this experience that the next day I marched my students who did not bring a proper device to a teachers’ room across the school to borrow a set of actual textbooks for an hour. Something magical happened, my D students actually opened their books, put pen to paper, were quiet, focused and received a good grade at the end of class!

The Ed Tech experts talk a lot about “disrupting” the classroom by allowing students to use their cell phones in class instead of banning them. They have obviously never actually taught a lesson in a public high school with students using nothing but cell phones. They would soon realize that the idea that students would actually use their phones to follow a lesson rather than a means of distraction is an epic fail. There is no greater way to “disrupt” the classroom than allowing students to use cell phones. Even lap tops are no guarantee that our students will be fully engaged in a lesson.  For a generation of students raised on devices, I am convinced that when they are faced with the glare of the screens, a cognitive change takes place and what I like to call “their idiot brain” turns on. When I was growing up, if you were to sit down in front of a computer, it meant it was time to get to work. But for my students, when they see a computer screen, their brains have been trained to think it is time to be mindlessly entertained. When I really want my students to focus on a complicated task, I find myself telling them to put their devices away and I break out paper copies and force them to do their assignment on paper. I am considering putting up a poster like this teacher in my classroom so my students know the appropriate time to have their devices out and when to put them away.

technology today

Technology has certainly transformed the classroom, but it may not necessarily have been for the better. There are some digital applications that have helped me organize information for my course and for my students like Schoology and OneNote that I don’t plan on abandoning any time soon. Those applications have been life savers and will remain mainstays in my classroom. But for now, I am not interested in embracing the latest tech app in my instruction. I am more interested in finding innovative ways to fully engage my students in a distraction free classroom that functions with or without a Wi-Fi connection or a charged device. I want one hundred percent of my students’ attention, I want them to be able to focus on one task at one time, I want to see their faces and not the tops of their heads, I want them to look into the eyes of their peers, I want them to converse, I want them to experience the way I experienced school and the funny thing is, I think that is what my students want too.