Software and life, mostly life.

13 June 2008

Misdirected attention or misdirected teaching?

Response to The multi-tasking virus by Nicholas Carr

But it was the audience's reaction [to Columbia professor Dennis Dalton's lecture] that left an even greater impression on Waitzkin:
Over the course of a riveting 75-minute discussion of the birth of Gandhian non-violent activism, I found myself becoming increasingly distressed as I watched students cruising Facebook, checking out the NY Times, editing photo collections, texting, reading People Magazine, shopping for jeans, dresses, sweaters, and shoes on Ebay, Urban Outfitters and J. Crew, reorganizing their social calendars, emailing on Gmail and AOL, playing solitaire, doing homework for other classes, chatting on AIM, and buying tickets on Expedia (I made a list because of my disbelief).

There's a very strong possibility that the real takeaway here is not the malaise and malady of multi-tasking and attention direction disorder[1], but a classroom from 20 years ago be reenacted for the benefit of students today.

I can't defend any of the students' actions, what Waitzkin describes is rudeness and wasted tuition for sure. But, I think there is also fault to be found in the situation itself. The same lecture hall style classrooms have been in use for hundreds of years, but only in the last 10 have computers become ubiquitous. I finished college in 2003 and even then there were maybe 1 in 10 students with laptops and no wireless on campus.

There's an opportunity here. I've heard--and it sounds reasonable--that new business thrives at the boundaries. Where there's turbulence and change, there is also opportunity. The image from this story that sticks in my head is a forlorn professor at the edge of retirement looking out at a sea of rectangles where 10 years ago he saw a sea of faces, or at least a sea of tops of heads. The more appropriate maxim (rather than "kids these days") may be "things are changing, and they're changing faster."

Maybe the problem is just with students getting dumber. But maybe the problem is that the screens only have one side. Maybe the problem is that everyone is looking at something different on their personal screens. Maybe the problem is that instead of experiencing the history the teacher is describing in any of the dozens of interactive ways the technology each student obviously had access to allows, they are expected to listen to a single person somewhere down in front talk about it.

There is no silver bullet, the answer is not simply, "make it a video and put it on YouTube." There is however an opportunity here to try out a lot of different answers. My personal vote, is get the heck out of the classroom. However it goes down, I'm excited to see how the world will be different for my children.

[1] quote from the comments: "That's not mind-wandering, it's attention -- just aimed in another direction."

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Husband and father, software developer in Baltimore, MD.