Throughout engaging with all the course material this week, I was reminded of an experience that reflects the social interactions of many students. My group of friends, about 4 to 5 of us, were all eating dinner together and we had begun winding down somewhat, having finished most of what we were all planning on eating for the night. Unsurprisingly, out came the phones and each of us began engaging with something that had absolutely nothing to do with any of the people around us. It was at this time that one of my friends looked up from his food, looked around and said, “Boy, I sure do love social dinners,” his sarcasm evident. The rest of us then looked up from our phones, realized that he very much had a point, and then attempted to actually carry on some conversation for the rest of our time at the table that night.
This wasn’t the only time this happened, and it’s not necessarily representative of every group dinner for students at colleges, but it reminded me a lot of Sherry Turkle’s points in Stop Googling. Let’s Talk. Often, when analysts use college students as their prime example of certain trends, they have a tendency to exaggerate or misrepresent the actual behaviors of the students or the reasons behind their behavior. What stood out to me about both Turkle and Michael Wesch’s representations in their talks was the startlingly high level of accuracy and fairness.
Turkle’s discussion about how students feel like they can do things on their phones and still carry on a good conversation at the same time without any loss between either activity really struck true. I catch myself doing this sometimes and it’s definitely something that I’ve noticed my friends and acquaintances doing as well. The reason I say that I catch myself is that in truth, I do actually know that I’m neglecting one of the two tasks that I’m trying to do simultaneously when I engage in this practice, but a lot of the time I’m willing to lie to myself about the ability in this area that I don’t actually possess until someone calls me out on it. It’s partially due to this fact that most of the groups that I’ve worked with for group projects have a rule of no looking at our phones when we’re meeting together.
In the same vein, the “rule of three” that “in a conversation among five or six people at dinner, you have to check that three people are paying attention — heads up — before you give yourself permission to look down at your phone” (Turkle, 1), is one that my friend group followed all the time in past semesters, often without actively realizing that we were following it. When I have dinners with my Frisbee team, or “Frinners” as we call them, I also see this rule in play. Overall, Turkle had a really balanced and well-reasoned representation of college students and the way that technology influences their social interactions with each other negatively a lot of the time.
Wesch followed the same trend. This might be due to the fact that he sampled the college students that he had the best access to in such a collaborative manner, but I felt that his discussion of how students behave in classes when they have access to their laptops was very accurate. In my Media Theory & Methods and Play & Interactive Media classes, laptops are allowed in class with no restrictions and I’ve seen all the things that Wesch pointed out and more. Not just playing around on Facebook, but in other cases, I’ve seen laptops engaged in online shopping, flash games and on one occasion, a full on Netflix show with subtitles on. I’ve obtained this collection of distraction examples across multiple years of classes, but I still feel like it makes a good point about how we’re brought up to view entertainment.
It’s almost impossible, no matter how excellent or engaging a teacher might be as they move through the material, to keep everyone in class’s attention at all times. As Turkle and Wesch point out, accurately I feel, we are taught by our connection to a constant stream of information that we should always be doing something to stay entertained. So when the class material shifts to something that doesn’t hold the students interest fully, in a lecture format especially, it seems completely natural to us to switch over to something else that will hold our attention for that time instead.
So what’s the solution? Well, some professors take the approach that students aren’t allowed to have laptops without an accommodation request from the Office of Disability Services. I’ve had several professors who use this method and overall I’d say that it’s fairly effective but may miss out on dealing with the actual issue itself. The other main strategy I’ve seen is to integrate as much varied multimedia content and relevant asides into the lecture classes as possible and make as much of the class as possible either group discussion or lab type activities. This is certainly more engaging, but for some classes or teachers, this strategy might be difficult to incorporate into their material.
In the end, just as technology is constantly evolving, so is education, both higher and lower. Perhaps the answer is a mix of currently existing methods, perhaps it is something that we haven’t thought of yet or perhaps phrasing it in terms of problem and solution is the wrong way to go about it, only the innovation of education and the passage of time will tell.