The Off Button

The Off Button, by Doug Mann 2012, updated 2016.

A shorter version of this article appeared in the Toronto Star on October 6, 2012 as “Let’s Unplug the Digital Classroom”, and has been reprinted twice in textbooks on good writing. 

Recently the Pandora’s Box of how best to reform our institutions of higher learning has been opened on a number of fronts. Government officials are heard in the media talking about us becoming “road kill” on the information superhighway if we don’t get rid of the “sages on stages” approach to teaching.

The Ontario Government’s 2012 white paper on education, “Strengthening Ontario’s Centres of Creativity, Innovation and Knowledge,” notes that there are “new ways for students to learn from and interact with faculty and each other,” and that we may be entering an age when the “digital delivery of course content can free faculty in traditional institutions to engage in direct dialogue and mentorship with students.”

Diane Rasmussen Neal of Western University warns in an article in The Western News that the modern classroom must “evolve or die,” adopting teaching analogues of Facebook like Edmodo to make education more fun and engaging. “The only certainty in today’s online, information-drive world is change, and higher education must evolve along with our technological society in order to remain relevant to our young students and their future employers.”

In fact, the phrase “sages on stages” has become something of a buzzword for digital neo-liberals, repeated over and over in the media recently.

Such views are misinformed at best, crude propaganda for Apple and Microsoft at worst. A careful analysis of the role of digital technology in higher education will show that it’s promoted ignorance, not knowledge, and severely degraded basic reading, writing and thinking skills. It’s time to hit the off button.

All technologies are ambivalent in the sense that for every benefit they offer us we must pay some sort of price. Personal cars allow us to zip across town in the privacy of our own steel cabins, but they also cause noise, pollution, traffic congestion, accidents, and wars in the Middle East. The use of technology in higher education is equally ambivalent, a fact not recognized by its naïve boosters.

When talking about technology in education, we have to make some sharp distinctions. Most of the time we’re not talking about mechanical technologies like bicycles and buses and bullhorns. Also, we’re not talking about medical technologies like penicillin and dental drills. No one wants to go back to a time when we used horses ‘n buggies to cross town or leeches to cure a fever. When we talk about the use of technology in education, we’re talking mostly about digital technologies.

One can find three general views toward technology defended in the public sphere. First, there’s the techno-scepticism I’m defending here that questions the utility, both political and practical, of adopting each new gadget or system. Radically opposed to this is the techno-futurism, which sees almost all technological progress as at the same time social progress. Futurists demand that we adopt new technologies as they arise as a sort of moral imperative, rushing at midnight to Future Shop (now extinct thanks to Best Buy) to buy the latest video game or iPhone. Third, there are the techno-defeatists, who say in effect “I know this technology may not be beneficial, but almost everyone is using it, so resistance is futile: we had best jump on the bandwagon before it leaves us behind.” Most people commenting on higher education are either defeatists or futurists. The latter are at least defending a moral principle; the former have just given up.

One problem with both defeatists and futurists is that too many of them haven’t spent any time in the classroom in the last decade. If they had, they’d realize that digital technology is already omnipresent there, used by both students and professors. Almost every undergraduate student in North America is addicted to texting on their smart phones and checking their Facebook pages on an hourly basis. Almost every professor uses a computer, projector and Power Point presentations as part of their lectures. Most also use video clips and the Internet in some way. Calling for more digital technology in education today is like calling for more white people in the Republican Party.

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The suite of digital technologies used on campus is obvious to all active teachers: smart phones, iPods, iPads, and computers connected to the Internet. The real questions are how these are used, and whether these uses contribute anything to the main goal of higher education: to improve students’ minds and characters by helping them to learn facts, debate ideas, and understand the world better. The answer is, for the most part, no – study after study shows that digital technology has dumbed down higher education. They may make education more “fun” and “engaging.” But that’s only saying that they’ve turned education into a form of entertainment, which no one who cares about improving the knowledge and skills of their students should defend. Writing essays, reading difficult texts, or figuring out complex mathematical problems have ever been “fun”, and never will be.

We need a more careful examination of the beneficial and harmful effects of specific digital technologies before it’s too late and we’re all assimilated by them. On the plus side, the use of the computer as a delivery device for texts and images is largely a positive development. Gone are the nights spent in the bowels of the university library looking through card catalogues and the Social Science Index for books and articles. Now they’re only a few mouse clicks away on the library website. It’s also useful from a teacher’s point of view to be able to display images and video via classroom computers when teaching things like fine art, comics, and film.

However, even this seemingly benign benefit of digital tech comes with a price. Also gone are the hours spent leafing through tomes on library shelves that lead to lateral thinking, finding books and articles related to whatever one is investigating that broaden one’s perspective. Digital technology promotes a smart bomb approach to research, zeroing in on specific targets. For instance, I’ve read Nicholas Carr’s ground-breaking article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” online, but I have no idea what the other articles in that summer 2008 issue of The Atlantic are about.

Laptops in the classroom are much more of a problem. Yes, one-in-ten students actually uses them to look up facts and issues related to the topic of the lecture they’re listening to, but the other nine are using classroom wifi to check their Facebook pages, email or celebrity web sites. Portable computers combine all four of the general functions of digital technology: they combine information delivery, peer communication, entertainment, and procrastination. Cell phones concentrate on the last three functions, and have no pedagogical purpose that I can see. They are merely an annoyance that have to be policed.

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Anyone who has walked to the back of a university classroom and looked at what students are actually using their various screens to look at will abandon any sense that digital technology plays a positive role in the classroom. Once notes are taken, the great majority revert to the peer communication, entertainment and procrastination functions of the computer. They learn nothing of value from these functions. Conversely, many of the best students I’ve had in the last decade print off class notes at home then come to class with these, a pen and a book or two in hand. Overall, the use of laptops in the classroom hurts students’ ability to learn.

What’s especially frustrating when we hear the blind support for digital technology bruited in government white papers and the mass media today is the refusal of both futurists and defeatists to acknowledge the substantial empirical research and theoretical argumentation over the last ten years or so that questions the value of such technology. Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation contains literally dozens of studies that show how digital technology has helped to create a generation of proud bibliophobes who avoid complex knowledge like the plague. As Bauerlein says, young users of digital tech “upload and download, surf and chat, post and design, but they haven’t learned to analyze a complex text, store facts in their heads, comprehend a foreign policy decision, take lessons from history, or spell correctly” (201-202).

Nicholas Carr has shown how Wikipedia, Google and other web sites have fragmented our memories and attentions spans, making an evening spent reading War and Peace with all screens off almost impossible. Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell’s The Narcissism Epidemic shows how celebrity culture, the Web 2.0 and soft parenting have accelerated young people’s sense of self-esteem beyond all reasonable boundaries of actual achievement. The mass culture tells them that everyone can be a star, facts be damned.

Just this year I had a student appear halfway through a class, pick up a poorly written and researched essay with a low grade, look at it for ten seconds (ignoring my detailed comments), then throw it in the garbage and walk out the back door. He typified the most cynical student attitude today toward institutions of higher learning: that they’re just degree-granting machines where the student is incarcerated for few years before graduating, getting a job and buying lots of stuff.

Digital narcissists don’t care about their inability to read and write English or their ignorance of a range of basic historical and political facts: their egos prevent them from acknowledging the absolutely essential notion that they can actually learn something from institutions of higher education, especially if teachers give them low marks that damage self-images pumped up by hours and hours of looking at the carefully posed pictures they’ve posted on their Facebook pages. Revenge time comes at the end of term, when they can fill out anonymous class evaluations.

What we need are technologies and techniques that decrease self-involvement and narcissism. Yes, Facebook may help shy students express themselves digitally. But wouldn’t it be better if they fought that shyness by talking to flesh-and-blood people in a real physical environment? In the long term, which life technique will help them more? Teachers today too often take the easy way out, doing what will make them popular with students, rather than helping them develop their skills and characters. Short-term solutions breed long-term problems.

My solution? Hit the off button in as many places as we can. Turn off wifi in the classroom, restricting it to student lounges scattered across campus. Create a school-wide policy that bans the use of cell phones during lectures and seminars. Since texting has become an addiction for many, treat cells like cigarettes: if you want to text, do it outside. Ban the use of social networking web sites during class. Stop promoting Internet-managed distance education courses: these are cheap imitations of the real thing. Digital technologies can be great delivery devices. But what they too often deliver has nothing to do with education.