Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Texting While Learning

I didn't text when I was in college. I didn't text because I was an undergraduate from 1990-1994, during the pretexting era. But I probably doodled once or a million times.

I drew this stick figure recently when I showed a documentary during class. I usually take notes when I show a film during class. This time, I just felt like making a self-portrait. It also serves as commentary about different things that people might be doing during class. Simply put, our attention is divided. It always has been and always will be. Students can text, doodle, and daydream. I can ask students to put away their texting machines, but I can't ask them to stop daydreaming. I would like their attention, and I try to maintain it, but I can't command it.

I have tried different approaches during the texting era. One semester I asked students to help me craft a mobile device policy. The semester didn't turn out much differently than when I had a customary policy on my syllabus asking students not to use their devices during class. In other words, the semester was kind of like any other: some students didn't use their phones during class, others did.

I think Nathan Palmer makes a good point about this subject when he writes: "I’m not sold on the idea that the time and energy it takes to get students to put away their phones is really worth it." I agree with Nathan that I don't want to use up my goodwill by policing students' cell phone use. My views on this issue might change in the future. For now, I'm lenient about cell phones in the classroom and my approach is to let students figure out for themselves if its in their best interest to text during class. My judgment, at this time, is that the occasional use of devices during class for non-class purposes does not interfere in a significant way with the process of learning. And I like having the ability to prompt students to use their devices to investigate something we're talking about during a class session.

Research confirms what we already know if we spend any time at all in a classroom: students often use their devices during class for non-class purposes. We can try to prohibit the use of devices. We can be lenient about devices. We can encourage students to make use of their devices for class purposes. There are lots of things we can do. If we're lenient, it doesn't automatically mean that all device use is acceptable. There are cases when we might judge a student's use of a device to be too distracting to other people in the room.

I don't think there is a single answer or "best practice" for what to do about devices in the classroom. Instructors have to determine what they think is the best approach for the learning environment they want to create in their classroom.
I think it's good when students are exposed to a variety of policies. And I think it makes sense for instructors to experiment with different ways of handling the situation. It helps me to share information and compare notes on how we respond to students using devices during class time. I'm always interested in hearing what other instructors and students think about this matter. I hope instructors and students will add their comments to this post. I'm interested in what kind of policy you prefer: "strict," "flexible," or whatever else you have tried or experienced. I like to think we're doing the best we can to figure this out together.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Making Family Memories

It’s pumpkin day, so I am happy. The farm opens to the public at 10:00. Like most days, we’re on a schedule. Two-year-old Mack will need a nap around 1:00. It’s drizzling and not very warm, but if the weather stays this way and Mack and his five-year-old brother Troy go with the flow, then we can cram a few hours of family fun time into the morning. Tina, my wife, grabs juice boxes and fruit snacks for the boys. I have my 86 cent cup of coffee from McDonalds. We are ready to go.
It’s a thirty minute drive from our subdivision to the farm. It isn’t a picturesque drive through the countryside. It’s a boring landscape except for the last five minutes. But the least of our worries is the view from our Kia Sorrento. Mack is off to a rocky start. This little person has peculiar habits. He likes to carry a spoon and rubber ball wherever we go. And he frequently drops one or the other. He drops the spoon just as we exit the subdivision, and proceeds to shout at us to make it right. Troy reads aloud from one of the half dozen or so books in his lap. He loves to read. He hasn’t yet figured out how to read to himself. So he reads out loud. Loudly. Mack continues to yell at Tina and me, prompting us to holler back at him. This isn’t the happy family experience we had in mind. Suddenly the noise subsides and we are treated to a mostly quiet ride. And then it starts pouring. Tina has a sour look on her face. I know what she’s thinking—maybe we should turn around—but a U-turn isn’t part of the script. We keep going. As we pull into the pumpkin farm, a good tune comes on the radio: “Love Will Find A Way” by Pablo Cruise. The song is unbelievably pleasant. I don’t want to get out of the car until it ends. So I turn up the volume and wait. And then we are ready for fun.
It’s still raining, so there aren’t a lot of people at the farm. Troy and Mack each get to enjoy a pony ride. First Mack, then Troy. I jog alongside the pony in a circle two times trying to get a picture of at least one of our sons having fun, but I fail. So there is not yet photographic evidence that family fun occurred. After the pony rides we catch a hayride to the pumpkin patch. The rain stops and the sun begins to shine. We jump off the wagon to search for pumpkins. There is mud, so the kids are happy. Pumpkins and mud are a guaranteed recipe for fun. I am not a skilled photographer, but I have my eye on a bench that I think will make for a nice picture. After we find our pumpkins, we put the boys and their pumpkins on a bench and capture the happiness. Snap! This is what it’s all about. We have a picture of our boys together, smiling. This becomes a family memory, not only of the rainy-turned-sunny day, but also of our boys being happy and silly. It will also remind us of how Mack likes to keep a sock on one of his hands. He really is a quirky bird. He is an endearing character, which makes it easier to endure the terrible twos. Tina posts the picture to Facebook. The picture is met with approval from the network. Smiles all around. On the return hayride, Tina and I make small talk with a few strangers. A woman grumbles about getting mud on her clothes, but catches herself and changes her tune. She says, tone adjusted, something like: “It’s all about the experience, right?” She’s exactly right. We’re here to have an experience. We want to feel something different. We want some enjoyment in this too often stressful life. A hayride with pumpkins, mud, rain and then sun does the trick just fine. This is a lovely experience. A lovely experience with family. Family fun time makes us happy.
The ride home is uneventful. We stop at a pizzeria to get some slices to go. Once home, we quickly eat lunch so Mack can nap. He shifts into nap mode like a pro. It’s a relief when things go according to plan.

And many days later, as I reflect on our mini-adventure, the Pablo Cruise song remains stuck in my head. That’s okay with me. I don’t mind hearing a song about love again and again and again. The end.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Thought for the Day from Howard Becker

"Elites, ruling classes, bosses, adults, men, Caucasians--superordinate groups generally--maintain their power as much by controlling how people define the world, its components, and its possibilities, as by the use of more primitive forms of control. They may use primitive means to establish hegemony. But control based on the manipulation of definitions and labels works more smoothly and costs less; superordinates prefer it. The attack on hierarchy begins with an attack on definitions, labels, and conventional conceptions of who's who and what's what."

Howard Becker, Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance. Excerpt from the chapter "Labelling Theory Reconsidered," pp. 204-205 in the edition I have (New York: The Free Press, 1997). The chapter is based on a paper presented at the British Sociological Association in April, 1971.