Wednesday, November 2, 2016

"All Shall Skip the Announcements and Despair"

I have to wonder: How did I waste time as a student? Or how did technology influence my study habits?

We’re talking about being a student in a pre-silicon world. I didn’t have an email address until I was at least a sophomore at university – maybe it was earlier; my memories are a little fuzzy. 

I remember reading a lot of books. And doodling. I still have most of the books and a small fraction of the doodles.

I have students who look at doing a research paper or a critical analysis of a book with fear when I talk about doing them in the pre-Internet days. Because that meant reading books. Actually having to go to the library to research. Using ancient technology like microfilm and card catalogs and librarians. And – gulp, they say – annotating books. Entire books. Books without text search functions and highlights saved in the cloud.

Did I do all that? I must have.

And I remember the Internet being this interesting thing. A toy, almost like one of those little electronic kits my boys use, to build a buzzer or a timer by snapping pre-made pieces into a grid, following LEGO-like instructions. I built web pages by looking at how others made theirs. Sites dedicated to my favorite books, book reviews, my own creative writing. Once I posted a lyric from They Might Be Giants concerning James Ensor, Belgium’s famous painter. I got an email from someone else using the toy Internet to research James Ensor, and wanted to know what I could say about the guy. I couldn’t say anything beyond what TMBG sings in the lyrics.

It’s a new world out there, Golde, a new world.

The Internet isn’t a toy anymore. It’s this big thing, a collective wad of knowledge and trivia and ephemera and lies and truthiness and facts, all mixed together like those clumps of hair you have to clean out of your tub drain once in a while.

I’m caught up in it. I read, and I’m much more excited when I find something I can react to (like the article I’m about to mention). I’m excited to add to that mostly useless wad of Internet knowledge via my blog, which must be utterly useless to most of those who encounter it. Including myself. Though it does give me a place to free write . . . 

And my students have never known a world without it. The Internet, not my useless blog.
And, like Joelle Renstrom’s students, whom she writes about at, they’re floundering where the two worlds intersect. (There’s that article I promised.)

It’s a good read. A frightening read for someone like me, who sees what Renstrom sees

But, I wonder – how much floundering did I do at the intersection of the real worlds and other worlds I inhabited? Memory is a funny thing – the further we are from it, the rosier it gets. Certainly there were a myriad of things I did to self-sabotage my academic career – certainly there are things I’m doing RIGHT NOW to sabotage my embryonic career as a novelist. Maybe this is one reason we’re asked to keep journals. So we can go back to see what kind of folly we might have recorded. If at all.
But this is the part of Renstrom’s article that frightens me the most, whether I remember what kind of useless stuff I used to do to avoid studying. Why frightening? Because I see it in my students. My online students. They have no chance to escape the beast. And what efforts I can put into rectifying the situation feel like they get lost in the noise:

In an effort to save my students exorbitant coursepack fees, I used to photocopy course readings. But when my department clamped down on copier use, I scanned the articles and put them online, which meant I had to allow students to open their laptops during discussions. On the one hand, they’re adults – if they want to go to shop for shoes on the Zappos website or look at celebrities’ Instagram accounts during class, they’ll have to deal with the consequences. But our discussions suffer, which makes my job harder. When reading on screens, students don’t annotate or reread. They get glassy-eyed, zone out, and then struggle to find quotes they only vaguely remember when it comes time to write the paper. The endless opportunities for distraction also mean that they miss other aspects of class, including important instructions.

That’s when they come to me and we have some version of the following conversation:

Student: ‘I have no idea what’s going on.’

Me: ‘What do you mean “no idea”? The assignment sheet details all the requirements, we’ve reviewed them in class, and we’ve read example essays. What exactly are you having trouble understanding?’

Student: ‘I don’t know… everything?’

I used to jump to the conclusion that students with whom I had such interactions were inherently flawed, academic lost causes. But that’s a reductive explanation, and doesn’t get at the heart of the problem; it’s not just that they have trouble paying attention or are distracted by their phones or laptops in the classroom. The problem is their use of technology in general. Technology demands a significant amount of time and attention and has conditioned them to not question it. It takes up more and more of their bandwidth, and the net effect is lobotomising.

Are these students dumb? Hardly, and Renstrom doesn’t believe so either. What they are is distracted.
So, what can I do, as an online instructor, do to cut down the distractions?

There’s little to go on out there. This fellow, for example, suggest confronting students with the studies that show technology is distracting in the classroom. In the physical classroom. Little help to me in an online environment, where the distraction and the classroom come packaged together.

Any solution cannot cut off technology, as technology is the basis of online education. And assigning more readings and presentations to an already distracted group of students seems unproductive.

Then there are comical suggestions like these.

Nost of you who teach online see the flaws already. Post stuff for them to read, Or listen to. For them to forget about as they try to cognate through it all and end up calling or texting or emailing you anyway because you’re the quick answer, not the stuff you’re offering in class to help them find the answers.

So, we bulletize. Offer video announcements. Spread them out over a week, rather than the info dump. Is that going to work?

None shall read them and despair. It’s like Galadriel is in the classroom.

Maybe the solution is that old adage, “Less is more”?

I’m still looking for that magic bullet. Let me know if you find it.

No comments: