Leveraging Technology: Support vs Distraction

Our phones are powerful tools.

They are computers in our pockets more powerful than most of the science fiction I read or watched growing up ever conceived of. Even Star Trek the Next Generation had stacks of iPadish computers full of data on the Captain’s desk—each only held so much data. Now, something a little larger than a deck of playing cards holds or has access to more data than the entire ship they flew in threw galaxies.

I love technology. I combined my English major with a computer science minor and assumed it would be a practical and useful piece of my education. It largely has. Most of what I learned is outdated now, but the minor taught me how to think in different ways and provided me a comfort with technology in general. I learned quickly that technology’s broad offerings could distract me easily and therefore made a personal mantra: technology must support what I’m doing not distract me from it.

Humans are highly prone to distraction. Recent brain science shows regions light up and fire when we are distracted by multiple stimuli, and that concentration uses glucose at different levels, and is thus more effort and exhausting. It makes sense that we, especially teenagers, would choose distraction over concentration, even to our own productive detriment.

I keep thinking of the Jimmy Kimmel sketch in 2015 where Christopher Lloyd in his Back to the Future character holds a smartphone and says, “This tiny supercomputer must allow astrophysicists to triangulate…” and Jimmy Kimmel interrupts to say, “no, we use it to send little smiley faces to each other.”

My teaching has always involved technology. The only room I’ve taught in in 14 years without a set of computers is my first, I’ve taught with a smartboard for nearly a decade, I keep my curriculum as public as I can (minding copyright) on my website (which is also my plan book) so students and parents have continual access, I’ve used online classroom environments, and I’ve required students to turn in papers or projects digitally.

Ironically, as my district (and most surrounding districts and the national educational conversation) adopts and repeats the phrase, “leverage technology,” I’ve found myself pulling back from using technology. My mantra has remained the same: technology must support and not distract, but my experience and observations in the classroom lead me to believe technology does not agree. It seems more and more that technology is inclined, and even designed, to distract and not support productive work or learning.

Tech insiders seem to agree. The glamour and glitz and impressive largeness of technology continues to dazzle society. Many parents, teachers, community members I know and work with believe in technology with a faith I find confusing. I’m sure this post will garner me the label of luddite, etc. But I don’t use social media (in any form) because it is a black hole of distraction for me. It keeps me from the things I value: my students, my family, good literature, the immediate world around me. I know it is the great connector for many people, but for me I’ve never felt more superficial and isolated than when I followed my graduate school cohort to Facebook. Turns out pictures of meals are boring no matter who posts them. I stuck with letter writing (letter emailing). I recognize this is a personal choice, and not one made by the majority of culture.

But I am not a luddite. I use a computer and smartphone every day. I teach fully online classes at my community college. But I do believe that if educators use technology such as this nature sound map (recently promoted by my district), and never take students outdoors (even in urban centers) to listen and categorize and be present in the actual world, not just the virtual, we risk doing serious damage.

As Marshall Mcluhan said, “the medium is the message.” This is not a bad/critical/negative thing. But it becomes dangerous when forgotten. Shouldn’t part of the conversation (at least) center around deciding what technology best serves our educational outcomes? Maybe it is for many, but in my experience the devices eclipse the outcomes, and I increasingly find students struggle to use devices without distraction, and I find I turn to it less and less for lessons, despite being asked to include it more often.

3 thoughts on “Leveraging Technology: Support vs Distraction

  1. Shari Conditt

    I’ve often used the phrase that if we’re not using technology to enhance learning then we have a really expensive pencil (insert famous person who said this). The SAMR model has helped me decide when a tool/tech is actually enhancing the work or if I have created something that is basically an online worksheet.

    I’d also suggest that the devices can easily support bullying within our classrooms. I’ve also been supportive of students using their phones to support learning (dictionary.com is one of my favorite sites!). But I noticed this year that my students will snap a picture of a classmate engaging in learning. Within seconds the photo has been taken and shared. The optimist in me hopes it’s to show that the student loves this course. The pessimist in me worries that the student is being mocked.

    I’m worried about technology in our classrooms. I worry that our students struggle to balance their need for information with their desire to be constantly affirmed by social media. I’m going to just keep using kind words as a way to create that affirmation in hopes that I can help my students see that they are so much more than the curated character they create on social media.

    1. Jeremy

      I love the “expensive pencil” quote. We share the same worries about information and social media. I think technology has great potential, but it can also cause harm. As Mark says below, teaching students to use it thoughtfully is paramount, but I also think it is healthy to (as you point out) to show them other ways of interacting and to find balance. I think in the long term things will balance out. We are in a specific time of change and development, as everyone has been throughout time.

      I’ve seen the same things in classes. Students writing and researching, then the next minute playing some game, or snap-chatting and dividing their attention in a multitude of ways. Learning takes concentration.

      Thanks for your comments.

  2. Mark

    Also, if we are going to immerse our students in technology, it is incumbent that we also teach them how to interact with it properly. It is a real world work skill beyond school to be able to manage your digital life, including the cacophony of distractions that inherently occur.

    And, teaching them that scrolling down in an article to read it is not a bad thing.

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