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Why Clay Shirky Banned Laptops, Tablets and Phones from His Classroom


Last year, when I attended the EdgeRyders event I witnessed for the first time (having been mostly away from conference-like social situations) how far along the presence of digital devices has come in contaminating the social space. In some sessions many (if not most) people were looking at and engaging digital devices (laptops, smart-phones, tablets, etc.). Some of it was supposedly in service of a noble cause: creating a live feed and documentation so that other people, not attending the event in person, could partake.

I felt that the devices were breaking up the presence of the room, both of individuals and as a group. By trying to “bring in” people who were not in the room resulted in the people who were physicall in the room to not be present in it. These distraction, I felt, didn’t effect just those who were engaging their devices, but the entire group and space. We had all made time, traveled and spent money on coming together … and then, in my mind, compromised our togetherness … a self-defeating act. But I also felt that my feelings on this were not shared by the majority of people there.

Reading Why Clay Shirky Banned Laptops, Tablets and Phones from His Classroom sent me back to that experience and brought me some relief. Apparently it isn’t just me and my feelings … there is research too!

On multitasking:

“We’ve known for some time that multi-tasking is bad for the quality of cognitive work, and is especially punishing of the kind of cognitive work we ask of college students … even when multi-tasking doesn’t significantly degrade immediate performance, it can have negative long-term effects on “declarative memory,” the kind of focused recall that lets people characterize and use what they learned from earlier studying … A study from Stanford reports that heavy multi-taskers are worse at choosing which task to focus on. (“They are suckers for irrelevancy,” as Cliff Nass, one of the researchers put it.)”

On social media:

“… on top of the general incentive for any service to be verbose about its value, social information is immediately and emotionally engaging. Both the form and the content of a Facebook update are almost irresistibly distracting, especially compared with the hard slog of coursework … The form and content of a Facebook update may be almost irresistible, but when combined with a visual alert in your immediate peripheral vision, it is — really, actually, biologically — impossible to resist … In the classroom, it’s me against a brilliant and well-funded army (including, sharper than a serpent’s tooth, many of my former students). These designers and engineers have every incentive to capture as much of my students’ attention as they possibly can, without regard for any commitment those students may have made to me or to themselves about keeping on task.”

On how other people are effected by one distracted person:

” … screens generate distraction in a manner akin to second-hand smoke … multitasking on a laptop poses a significant distraction to both users and fellow students and can be detrimental to comprehension of lecture content … Allowing laptop use in class is like allowing boombox use in class — it lets each person choose whether to degrade the experience of those around them … The smallest loss of focus can snowball, the impulse to check WeChat quickly and then put the phone away leading to just one message that needs a reply right now, and then, wait, what happened last night??? … Anyone distracted in class doesn’t just lose out on the content of the discussion, they create a sense of permission that opting out is OK and, worse, a haze of second-hand distraction for their peers.”

On focus:

“I’m coming to see student focus as a collaborative process. It’s me and them working to create a classroom where the students who want to focus have the best shot at it, in a world increasingly hostile to that goal.”


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