• December 2, 2020
 Op-Ed: Another Professor Disses Smartphones, Joins Historic Line of Haters that Turn Out to Be Wrong

Op-Ed: Another Professor Disses Smartphones, Joins Historic Line of Haters that Turn Out to Be Wrong

I am a big fan of the podcast “Pessimist Archive (PA).” If you have never heard of it, the PA documents with humor the sadly regular, negative reaction that society, usually western society, has to things that we now take for granted.

Episodes include how people reacted when margarine was first introduced, how elevators scared rich people, and how the waltz, that staple of elegant ballroom dancing, was seen as an immoral exercise that would cause harm to the baby parts of any women that participated in it. (You can check it out wherever you can find podcasts.)

If high school History class had been half as interesting as a single episode of PA, I would have been much more interested in the topic. Sorry Mr. Swank.

After listening to almost all of the episodes, a clear pattern emerges when something new disrupts the order of things:

  • Item is introduced and upsets an industry or society or culture
  • Item become popular depsite itself
  • Item is labelled either unhealthy, immoral, unnatural or a threat to society/culture
  • Item is attacked by “experts” that are in reality not experts on said item
  • People listen to “experts” for a short time
  • Item usually wins out because item actually benefits industry or society or culture or all

What strikes me after listening to these stories of teddy bears, and scooters, and cars and elevators, and mirrors (yes, even mirrors!) is the sheer repetition of the opposition. It is almost as if there is a cultural playbook that people turn to whenever something new comes along.

Host Jason Feifer once stated something profound about what should happen but hardly ever does. He said, and I paraphrase here, that the new “thing” is almost never bad. It is just that the environment that the new thing is placed in has not adapted to how the new thing should operate.

He cited dance halls in the 18th century which were congested, poorly ventilated fine linen dust factories, that actually made people sick to be in. Of course, people were dancing the waltz in these halls at the time, and coming down with all kinds of respiratory ailments.

Was it the fault of the poorly ventilated, dusty, cold halls? Of course not, it was the fault of the dance, the waltz, that made people sick. See how that works? The environment needed to change, not the waltz. The environment almost always changes way AFTER the new innovation comes out.

Because the environment does not change as quickly, the new thing is often blamed for all the ills that are happening inside the environment that the new thing happens to be in.

With that in mind, that history of the new thing causing a backlash because the environment has not changed, I have noticed a rash of articles and research about students using technology and how bad the use of “screens” are to these children. (“Screens” in these cases are code for computers in most of these articles. “Screentime” is used instead of the phrase “using a computer” because, hey, it sounds more sinister I suppose.)

The latest article to attack “screens” and computers in the classroom comes from Nate Anderson with the not-too-subtle title “They’re abysmal students”: Are cell phones destroying the college classroom?”

In it, he discusses the findings of an MIT professor who stated about his students “I have a real fondness for my students as people. But they’re abysmal students; or rather, they aren’t really students at all, at least not in my class.

On any given day, 70% of them are sitting before me shopping, texting, completing assignments, watching videos, or otherwise occupying themselves. Even the ‘good’ students do this. No one’s even trying to conceal the activity, the way students did before. This is just what they do.”

See what he has done there? “I love my students as people, but my students love their phones more than me.” Boo hoo. Poor me. I am an expert and you should listen to me dammit! I may be a terrible teacher, but well, LISTEN TO ME! Never mind that TECHNOLOGY is in the actual name of the institution that I teach at.

See how that works? New technology in an old environment. It is not the professor’s lecture, its not the probably mid-20th century learning environment, its not the topic, it is not the format of the learning, it is not ANYTHING else, except the smartphone, the screen, the technology that is causing the classroom to fall apart.

The lack of self awareness by the professor (and others like him) is stunning although not unusual especially at the post secondary level. How has the professor adapted his teaching to fit his students learning needs? After all, aren’t these students customers of his?

Any other business besides education adapts to the needs of the customers, not the other way around. (Sorry ma’am, you have to purchase this pink two-door sports car for as your family vehicle, it is the only choice we have here at Toyota.)

Failure to adapt leads to disaster, AM-I-RIGHT Blockbuster? Are all these texting, video-watching, otherwise occupied students failing his class? He does not say, but I suspect not. If not, then his point is completely moot. If the students are learning and completing his classes successfully, then he yelling at passing clouds, and he is at fault for not adapting to his student’s learning styles.

And really, a professor who doesn’t know about learning styles? At MIT? Home of Negroponte and the Adult Kindergarten? Really? Anderson ended his article with a question about what should a 21st century classroom look like.

I emailed him and asked his to please answer his own question, which he graciously did:

“It’s hard to say, in part because I don’t think there is “an” answer. So much depends upon the discipline, the instructor’s quality, the student’s learning style, even the type of institution… That said, I can’t believe that opening a highly distracting, addictive-by-design device during courses is likely to -improve- the time students spend in the classroom. I agree generally with your point about thinking carefully about pedagogy–but I have seen some super-compelling lectures almost completely ignored by students staring at their devices. So it can’t -just- be about pedagogy, unless we’re going to rule out lectures altogether and make classroom time “participatory” as way of disallowing device use. That can be a great approach, but as someone who loves interactive lectures (when they are -good- and when they don’t simply repeat material I could read in a book), I would hate to have everything go this way.”

He seems to be an advocate for a variety of teaching methodologies from lecture (when they are good which many are not) to adapting to the type of..wait for it…environment that the class is being held in. Sort of a personalized learning approach.

Which, last time I checked, is made so much easier by the use of…technology. In the correct environment.

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Author: Tim Holt is an educator and writer, with over 33 years experience in education and opines on education-related topics here and on his own award-winning blog: HoltThink Read his previous columns here.

He values your feedback, feel free to leave a comment. 

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