Lectures are boring… sometimes
Lectures (whether in-person or virtual) should present information and help students understand content by making connections between ideas, demonstrating or explaining difficult concepts, or simply presenting the information in a way that makes it easier for students to remember the information later. Lectures should highlight important concepts and synthesize information that would otherwise take students hours to find and read. However, lectures are often an ebb and flow of new information and boring redundancy.
Teachers are sometimes blamed for students distracting themselves with technology because they aren’t using teaching methods that “kids today” understand. And it may be true that some courses and instructors are unengaging and boring. However, in the regular flow of a lecture, the information receiver will likely be bored during some parts of the lecture because they already understand a concept, are confused and do not know what is happening in the lecture, or simply find the course subject boring. The presence of occasional boredom is a symptom of group learning, when an instructor is teaching to students of different backgrounds.
The problem with modern technology is that it allows the slightly-bored student to escape immediately. What may have been 60 seconds of boredom turns into 240 seconds of distraction. The threshold for distraction is lowered, because we are given instant positive feedback of being entertained by checking our electronic devices. We have now missed some portion of the lecture and are slightly lost, which is may mean that understanding the lecture is difficult. We receive the negative reinforcement that lecture is boring. We distract ourselves with technology again.
I have been a student in networked and non-networked classrooms. And over and over again, students are playing on a computer or phone. Sometimes there is no pretense- the student is watching YouTube the entire class. But often it’s not continuous- just having email or a website up, or looking up something online that is class related. But the ability to escape is a constant pull. Maybe we’re only looking at our phones for 15 minutes out of the 50 minute lecture, but we’re thinking of checking them for another 15.
It’s technology’s fault for [not] being there
Technology in the classroom can be distracting. And it seems to be a problem with two knee-jerk solutions: 1) Get rid of all technology or 2) Incorporate all possible technology into the classroom.
I lean towards the first response. I’m not saying that technology cannot be incorporated into a course. Various platforms allow us to instantly and easily submit assignments, provide feedback and grades, and exchange information. They allow us to engage in distance learning and online discussions. And technology can be used to engage students.
But technology in a class can facilitate distractions. Teachers shouldn’t give up on trying to keep students focused on the lecture instead of their phones and computer screens. It shouldn’t be included in a course just because it can be. Do we need to give students more-expensive electronic versions of equipment or integrate phone applications into a class?
Conversely, technology shouldn’t be used because it’s easier to facilitate and grade than in-person interactions. By replacing in-person with online discussion, words are stripped of their tone and corresponding body language. After spending time crafting the perfect blog post, might we not be a bit defensive about people questioning our ideas? Or reading someone’s post after a bad week of work may result in a negative interpretation of a neutral comment.
I enjoy writing and reading. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t write. Writing forces us look at our rambling thoughts and structure them into coherency. It allows us to pick out our best arguments and cut redundant and contradictory information. I simply question whether instead of encouraging more individual interfacing with the whole of the internet or on a virtual platform just shared with a class, we should be encouraging communication in the physical world.