Concentrating Class: Learning in the Age of Digital Distractions

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Key Takeaways

  • The "Are Machines Making Us Stupid?" course challenged students to explore technology's impact on their learning and their lives — and also taught the instructors a few lessons in the process.
  • Concentration labs were established where students had to limit or forgo technology use for specific assignments.
  • Far from seeing technology as disruptive of their focus, by the course's end, many students were further enamored of it.

In describing her experience of writing a paper for our class, one student said:

"I have been distracted by everything else I'm capable of doing on a "screen" while writing an essay. . . . I routinely stop writing and check my e-mail, or I am at the disposal of any other wandering thought I get while writing essays. I think I even started to shop online while I was in the middle of this essay…."

Another confessed that, while writing the first page of the assignment,

"I've sent five texts to my girlfriend and received five replies in kind, and I consider myself fairly conservative in my plugged-in-ness."

Both were enrolled in our "Are Machines Making Us Stupid?" course. Designed to address student distractedness and funded by a National Endowment for the Humanities Digital Humanities grant, the course was inspired by an EDUCAUSE listserv conversation with campus CIOs, in which a participant noted that many faculty were frustrated with students distracted by their laptops and mobile devices. The faculty wondered whether there was a "technological kill switch" that might limit students' Internet access. The conversation got us thinking: 150 years ago, Henry David Thoreau built a cabin at the edge of Walden Pond that took him off the grid — and allowed him to write Walden. Why couldn't we do something similar?

Encouraging disconnectedness is difficult because it challenges cultural norms. Also, disconnecting completely is not possible for everyone. In our case, 31 percent of our students have families, and 60 percent work more than 20 hours a week. Disconnection might seem idyllic, but for them it was impractical.

Perhaps there was another way. In Hamlet's Blackberry, William Powers laments the digital distractions we face today and proposes "Walden zones" — areas of disconnection where we can regain our sense of focus.1 Like Thoreau with his cabin, Powers turns off his modem on weekends. If we couldn't build cabins, we could create a Walden zone of our own.

Concentration Labs

We proposed turning our campus testing centers into "concentration labs" for writing where instructors could moderate student access to the Internet. For some assignments, access would be unlimited, while for others it would be limited and for still others it would be entirely denied. The idea was that the concentration lab would force students to experience how technology was affecting their writing. In the classroom, we would explore related questions: How are contemporary thinkers responding to the Internet's effect on our culture? How did earlier generations respond to new communication networks such as the telegraph, the phone, and television? Did their experiences anticipate ours?

Early on, we gave our students a survey. Most admitted to being distracted by the Internet. More than 60 percent sympathized with the statement, "Modern technologies interrupt me too often." As one student explained,

"I wrote while texting on my cell phone and occasionally clicking around on the Internet, reading a Wikipedia article or checking an RSS feed. I found myself easily distracted, not very motivated to finish the essay, even though it had a rapidly approaching deadline. Completion only came when I forced myself to intensely focus on the essay, not allowing myself to be distracted by the attractive lure of Internet connectivity."

Although students clearly perceived the interruptive potential of technology, they were unwilling to modify their behavior. Indeed, despite their acknowledgement that much technology is distracting, more than 50 percent agreed with the statement, "If money wasn't an issue, I'd buy a smartphone." They felt confident that resisting modern technology's many temptations was merely a matter of willpower.

To shake that faith, we assigned texts that described how the Internet was rewiring our brains. To our surprise, rather than challenging their sense of control, these readings seemed to enhance it. By learning where the dangers lurked, students felt they could better avoid them. One student explained:

"I do acknowledge that now, more than ever, we must be responsible for our own ability to focus. In a world that is increasingly distracted, I feel that the primary distinction between those who are distracted by the Internet and those who are cognizant and purposeful with their Internet use is simply that we need to be aware that above anyone else, we as individuals are in control of our Internet usage. We are the rulers and moderators of our connectivity, and we alone can assert our dominance [over] it."

Another observed:

"I recognize more how my life has been shaped by technology. I like recognizing that I am being shaped by it but that I have the power to change it if I want."

The class was unwilling to abdicate control to any machine, and this was driven home during one class when we drew a continuum on the board. On one end of the continuum we wrote "instrumentalism" (a view of technology as a tool subject to human control) and on the other "technological determinism" (a view of technology as having influence and control over humans). When we asked students to locate themselves on the continuum, not one associated him- or herself with determinism. Technology, they claimed, was benign and completely under their control, and, as the semester progressed, that belief solidified. At semester's end, one student commented:

"[The class] has changed my opinion. I came in here a technophobe or neutral about it. But now I'm more open to it. I see its benefits."

Another said,

"It's opened my eyes. I'm taking a computer class because I'm so excited about it."

Another declared,

"I'm a lot more [in] awe of technology. It's made me realize how much I rely on it."

This isn't to say that the entire class rejected the determinist perspective. Some were willing to consider how we shape and are shaped by our tools. But a generational difference remained. When one is exposed to a technology in youth, one is less inclined to question it, and so it is the fate of older generations who have become habituated to an older technology to note and compare the newer one's effects.

History as a Guide

In an attempt to offer a sense of this comparative perspective, we read history. Tom Standage's The Victorian Internet2 disabused students of the notion that the problems we confront are unprecedented. For instance, Standage quotes a businessman complaining about his harried lifestyle after the introduction of the telegraph:

The merchant goes home after a day of hard work ... to a late dinner, trying amid the family circle to forget business, when he is interrupted by a telegram from London, directing, perhaps, the purchase in San Francisco of 20,000 barrels of flour, and the poor man must dispatch his dinner as hurriedly as possible in order to send off his message to California. The businessman of the present day must be continually on the jump... He must use the telegraph.

Although the entire class was struck by similarities between the past and the present, they drew different conclusions about their significance. Many agreed with a student who observed that "the historical stuff makes me less anxious." For this faction, history offered both comfort and a rationale for complacence: if people have always harbored anxieties about information overload and interruption, then perhaps our own concerns are not as urgent as we believe.

Another faction arrived at different conclusions. One student observed:

In class, one theme has become very clear: technophobes have always existed. [W]hile this is true.... I do think this is a particularly challenging age.... Certain aspects of history certainly repeat themselves, but each age is also unique in many ways.... We should be willing to examine the current age and admit that it is unlike any other.... The kind of technology we are discussing right now is a bit of a historical anomaly.

For this student (and others like him), complacence was untenable. These students believed that discussions of technological anxiety were useful because they helped us adopt new tools mindfully.

A "Panic" over Distraction?

This division between the complacent and less complacent was tacitly connected to a larger division that often turned into a lively class debate. In a writing exercise for which Internet access had been completely blocked, one student lamented,

"I was and will always continue to be my biggest distraction.... As I sat writing I found myself very distracted. The testing center was silent, and I was one of the only students testing at the time.... The constant clicking of my typing and even the sound of my own breathing seemed to get louder and louder and my thoughts continued to wander farther from the subject at hand as more time elapsed. I found that the lack of distractions was a distraction in and of itself."

Another reported,

"Too much quiet makes my mind wander."

These grumblings were revisited at the semester's end, when a student observed that the course's obsession with distraction might itself be a problem:

How much is it made harder because we are thinking about it? How much is it made harder by reading Powers [on Walden zones]? If there is a pathology, how much is the pathology made worse by calling attention to it?

We had similar concerns: In promoting the Walden zones and raising the specter that digital technology distracts us, were we engaging in a kind of "moral panic"? Was our concern about technology's effects just the latest iteration of longstanding fears about the new and unknown? Didn't it echo earlier generations' worries about the way that movies, or rock and roll, or television, were affecting America's youth?

Every new information technology had sparked panics in the past. Were our own fears symptomatic of a particular class, generation, and profession whose identity (and possibly livelihood) was being challenged by new technology?

We had started the semester uncertain about how much our questions would unsettle our students. What we didn't expect was how uneasy we became: We were not sure at the semester's end whether our attempts to get students to regard technology with a more critical eye were motivated by a genuine concern about their cognitive welfare and capacity to write, or whether, deep down, we were eulogizing those older practices that made our vocations possible.

We couldn't expect to answer these questions conclusively. However, we think we gave students the means by which to fashion answers that were deeper, more insightful, and more compelling than were available to them before the class, and their answers (like our own) became informed by a fuller understanding of how others approached the questions differently.

Relationships to Technology and Others

On the last day, we asked students what they had learned from the course. One of the few older students, who had lived for decades before the Internet's arrival, noted that, before the class:

"[I] was fully satisfied not having it. For me, technology takes away from time we might [be spending with others]. But [now] I can get along better with my son because I understand where he's coming from in a way I didn't before."

In asking whether machines were making us stupid, we had hoped to understand our relationship to our technology. But, as this last student reminded us, the class also explored our relationships with others. We had presumed to explore machines, but in exploring machines we ultimately arrived at a better understanding of our differences and commonalities with one another.

  1. William Powers, Hamlet's Blackberry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age, HarperCollins, 2010.
  2. Tom Standage, The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's On-Line Pioneers, Walker & Co., 2007.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.