Indignant Outrage and the Growing Mistrust of Technology

In a recent article in  in which he extolls the relative virtues of analog over digital, David Sax describes his personal angst: “When my phone is on, I feel anxious and count down the hours to when I am able to turn it off and truly relax. The love affair I once enjoyed with digital technology is over — and I know I’m not alone.” Sax’s take on technology’s pernicious effects on our lives was followed a few days later – in the same publication – by Susan Dynarski’s polemic on the corrosive impact of laptops on learning. Dynarski, a professor of education, public policy and economics at the University of Michigan, outlined why she has opted to ban laptops from her classes: “A growing body of evidence shows that over all, college students learn less when they use computers or tablets during lectures. They also tend to earn worse grades. The research is unequivocal: Laptops distract from learning, both for users and for those around them.” One can only be respectful of the personal perspectives of both authors. But should such assertions dictate the experiences of others?

Stories about the destructive impact of technology on young people’s lives are all the rage (literally) these days. Notably, the outrage that these stories feed reveal a curious determination to impose personal fears on others. It is truly remarkable that we continue to talk about the value of technology in education at this point in our evolution. Too often, the nervous arguments cited against digital learning are, at best, derisory. Take this example from Sax: “The dynamic of a teacher working in a classroom full of students has not only proven resilient, but has outperformed digital learning experiments time and again. Digital may be extremely efficient … but learning happens best when we build upon the relationships between students, teachers and their peers.” Clearly, the author believes there is a stark choice to be made between teachers and technology and that we can’t have both, contradicting his own subsequent assertion that we must avoid, “the false logic of the binary code that computers are programmed with, which ignores the complexity of life in the real world.” 

In a similar vein, Dynarski assures us that, “the best evidence available now suggests that students should avoid laptops during lectures and just pick up their pens. It’s not a leap to think that the same holds for middle and high school classrooms, as well as for workplace meetings.” Which evidence is relied upon to extrapolate these conclusions to middle and high school classrooms, one wonders? This is where the author becomes a little sketchy:“Measuring the effect of laptops on learning is tough. One problem is that students don’t all use laptops the same way. It might be that dedicated students, who tend to earn high grades, use them more frequently in classes. It might be that the most distracted students turn to their laptops whenever they are bored.”  Dedicated students use their laptops more and get good grades as a result? Others just use them when they are bored? I can only echo Seth Godin’s response: “The solution isn’t to ban the laptop from the lecture. It’s time to ban the lecture from the classroom.”

Perhaps I am being unfair to Dynarski. After all, she has made her position clear and is basing it on evidence she believes to be solid. “In a series of experiments at Princeton University and the University of California, Los Angeles, students were randomly assigned either laptops or pen and paper for note-taking at a lecture. Those who had used laptops had substantially worse understanding of the lecture, as measured by a standardized test, than those who did not.” Inevitably – and unsurprisingly – we find ourselves confronted with the sanctity of the ubiquitous standardized test and one’s ability to regurgitate notes from a traditional lecture as the true measure of learning. This is as far from student or teacher agency as one can get, but we can’t blame the professor for the sad reality of how most education continues to be measured and celebrated today. If learning is reduced to this, then it is true to say that the computational power of digital technology is being wasted on learners and that they will be bored by lectures. This is also how Matthew Numer, writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, sees it:

“Students should be insulted. Telling them they can’t use their laptops or smartphones in class is treating … [them] like infants. Our students are capable of making their own choices, and if they choose to check Snapchat instead of listening to your lecture, then that’s their loss. Besides, it’s my responsibility as an educator to ensure that my lecture is compelling. If my students aren’t paying attention, if they’re distracted, that’s on me. The same goes for anyone presiding over a business meeting.”

The potential problem with Numer’s perspective is that it places the educator in the role of entertainer, competitor in a world of digital distractions. This challenge to teaching is not new, however, and while it is no longer the passed paper note we now compete with, computers have been with us long enough that talented teachers have developed the skills to manage and appreciate their use in the learning environment. We can ban technology, flap emotionally about how it is an either-or threat to humanity, remove the natural means by which most people choose to communicate, interact, create, and, in so many ways, thrive … or we can afford them the opportunities to learn how to use technology in healthy, balanced, and safe ways. As Sax reminds us: “We do not face a simple choice of digital or analog. …Instead, we are faced with a decision of how to strike the right balance between the two. If we keep that in mind, we are taking the first step toward a healthy relationship with all technology, and, most important, one another.”

Sax, David. “Our Love Affair With Digital Is Over.” New York Times Sunday Review, November 18, 2017.
Dynarski, Susan. “Laptops Are Great. But Not During a Lecture or a Meeting.”  New York Times, November 22, 2017.
Godin, Seth. “No Laptops in the Lecture Hall.” Medium, November 25, 2017.
Numer, Matthew. “Don’t Insult Your Class by Banning Laptops.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, December 4, 2017.