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Students alone together?

September 20, 2013

This week in one of my classes we read part of Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.

Turkle argues that social media have led to more connection but less conversation, more information transfer but less mutual understanding.

I was half-expecting many students to scoff at such hand-wringing, but they’ve actually responded with genuine interest and concern about how digital technologies have come to dominate their everyday lives.

I also asked my students to complete an informal Electronic Devices Survey. Out of 43 students surveyed:

  • 2 do not have a computer at home
  • 3 do not have a cell phone
  • 7 believe laptops should be entirely banned from the classroom
  • 9 check their emails or messages 5 or more times per hour
  • 24 tend to check email, texts, or other social media while reading for their courses
  • 36 sometimes feel that electronic devices distract them from other activities.

Several students have posted thoughtful reflections on their relations with cell phones on the public course blog. One student shared this brilliant and rather disturbing video:

Another student said that at the Starbucks where he works, it’s increasingly the older customers who annoy everyone by trying to place an order while texting.

The younger folks are realizing that “continuous partial attention” not only leads to superficial relationships, bad grades, and car accidents. It’s also just incredibly obnoxious.


3 Comments leave one →
  1. Wesley H permalink
    September 22, 2013 8:20 PM

    Another great post Mark, although I doubt most of society, especially younger people, understand the truly damaging effects of “continuous partial attention”. It is rampant in our society, and is only getting worse.

  2. September 23, 2013 8:48 AM

    Great idea to run an informal survey to get some more solid data on the topic. I’ve noticed a trend in my department to assume “the worst”–that young students are devotedly tied to their electronic devices, that they are familiar with and use all major social media platforms (facebook and twitter especially, but also tumblr and pinterest and others), and that they are therefore highly computer literate. Informal, verbal polls I’ve conducted in my own tutorials show these assumptions to be wrong: in fact, many first and second-year students find tweeting fairly mysterious or useless. Your post gives us a lot to consider: not only that implementing restrictions on electronic devices in classrooms might be something students actually want, but also that computer literacy and access to technology is not as prevalent or uniform as we often assume.

    A blogger at “Open for Success” ( has written about how uneven computer literacy only heightens barriers to education for those students she defines as “at-risk.” She writes:

    “Although most of my students are proficient in surfing the Web via the “big blue E,” creating a presentation in PowerPoint, and composing papers in Microsoft Word, they are also alarmingly deficient in essential digital literacy skills. Most do not know or have experience with the range of today’s devices, operating systems, Web browsers, applications, and file extensions-elements most in higher education assume students know before they enter college.

    About half of my students “BYOD” (Bring Your Own Device) to class, often the gift received after graduating from high school, but their K12 technology experience has prevented them from establishing a framework of fundamental computer knowledge needed to sustain their device. IT administrators in K12 unknowingly have created an entire generation of dependents not only unable to exist in a non-Microsoft world, but also incapable of articulating their needs when troubleshooting. The common response I hear from the at-risk student not experiencing success online is: “I’m just not good with computers.””

    • September 24, 2013 1:01 PM

      Thanks for the comment. Good point. I’m sure many students lose a lot of time because they get bogged down with computer problems that could be avoided with better preparation. Of course, given all the other constraints on their study time, I’d be wary of asking students to devote a lot of time to computer literacy. Literary literacy first! And reading Turkle makes me think that being “good with computers” should include being good at turning them off when appropriate.

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