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Multitasking makes a classroom

Rosemary Joyce, professor of anthropology | March 6, 2010

With each technology shift comes, sooner or later, the flood of critical commentary: computers were going to destroy our students’ ability to think; the internet was going to make plagiarism unavoidable; and now, smart phones and computers in the classroom mean our students will be distracted by online chat, email, and– the new threat– Facebook.

But somehow, our students continue to learn, despite each of these technological developments. Two things strike me in the latest expressions of concern about technology violating the sanctity of the classroom: the distrust of the motivations of students to learn; and a fundamental misconception about what a classroom should be for learning to take place.

In my current classroom, 190 students fill a lecture hall, and I certainly cannot see the screens of the laptops open in the top row, from which (I know) the view down to where I stand is vertiginously steep. Indeed, I would be surprised if most of the students with laptops open do not have some communication technology running in the background as they type notes to themselves, navigate to the course website to download readings, or use a browser to look up a word, a name, the date of an historical event I just mentioned or once– memorably– YouTube video of the standup routine of my youngest brother, the professional comedian in Chicago.

But they are typing those notes as I talk, which is not the majority of the time in the classroom. And they interrupt me when I do talk, to ask questions, clarify points, or contribute something they just looked up on Wikipedia (despite my constantly warning that the “information” there is as reliable as what any random classmate might tell you. Which may why I can’t convince them not to use it, since at Berkeley, a random classmate is likely to have something pretty helpful to say on any topic.)

Fundamentally, though, I just trust them. They are, after all, adults– and over a third of them come to Berkeley as transfer students, most in their junior year, many as older re-entry students. They have complicated lives, often trying to take one more class than I would have in their place, while working a job within or outside the university, and in many cases, carrying out the role of parents to small children or caretakers for siblings or parents with health challenges. I make it clear to them what they have to do in my course to succeed; and I assume that they have to learn by trial and error how to give each activity enough attention not to fail.

Which does not mean that I have done nothing to address the burgeoning technology assault. But telling them to turn off phones or computers is simply pointless, making me a police officer, not a teacher. And I remember the first 300 student lecture course I taught at Harvard, before laptops and cell phones became pervasive, when students, secure in the delusion that they were invisible, read the newspaper as I tried to lecture or even, on one memorable occasion, used the opportunity to entwine in a passionate embrace that literally knocked all the ideas I was trying to convey out of my head. So the challenge is not new, even if the form of alternative activity may be so.

What worked all those years ago, pre-laptop, pre-iPhone, works today. Then, I stopped using the podium, inconveniently located at the back corner of the stage, and came up to the edge, sat down, and started calling students up from their comfortable seats to join me and respond to questions about the course material. Even the very first time I did this, the atmosphere changed: the virtual wall between me and them melted. They might be next!

And so over the years they have been. One at a time, without advance warning, or in groups scheduled in advance and given time to practice their presentations, or organizing during the first 20 minutes of class before facing the jury of their peers: if the classroom is not a theater, and students are not the audience, I find they connect with me.

Maybe some of them, at any moment, are distracted by a hello from an FB Friend. Thank god for podcasting: when I do lecture, now, I can expect them to review the recorded soundtrack and resolve their urgent questions. Some will undoubtedly retain less than others: that has always happened.

But the technology is not to blame if I lose their interest. I am: because if the classroom is what it should be, it is a space for multitasking, where all of us have an active role all the time, using our minds to generate new knowledge, using the new tools at our disposal to pull things together, an active space where surfing the internet is not the response of a restless mind bored by being assigned to simply sit still and listen.