Monday, March 9, 2015

School is not an App: Resisting the Gamification of the Classroom

Warning: Long argument, with lots of imbedded evidence links, ahead.

I warn you about this because I know that very few of us have the concentration to finish reading a 1500-word blog article. Fewer still follow up on linked evidence, even if the topic interests us. And that should tell us plenty about how technology is affecting our ability to think.


My students live for, and through, their phones, tablets, and laptops. They come in with earbuds in place which they are reluctant to remove. They have deep feelings about their phone carrier, their video games of choice, and their streaming services. They weep, inconsolably, if a smartphone is lost, stolen or broken. They identify themselves by the consumer-driven binaries of Mac/PC, console/computer,  and Android/IPhone.

The few who resist the consumer-electronic branding of their generation by huge corporations face teasing or stony silence should they mention their abstention. One of the points of critical thought is to interrogate and challenge our assumptions, so I start there: I have them put their phones in their pockets or face-down on the table. Then, they will check them--sometimes unconsciously. What they find there is usually meaningless, and often doesn't even exist. It is just the urge which drives their action. It is their boss. They are slaves to the machine.

That machine is full of pictures, text messages from friends and family, YouTube videos of things they found fun or were assigned as educational, creative content illegally downloaded for free, and a window to the infinite variety of the internet. But, ask them to find something online and they are lost if it cannot be put into the form of a question, as though Google (and all algorithmic search engines) are Alex Trebek. Despite being the digital generation, they have little idea how to engage meaningfully with the resources available to them online.

It is not a coincidence that during the same time that job security, academic funding, and content-based teaching have all been undermined or eliminated we have also turned, ever more, toward technology as a solution for all the problems of our seriously adrift and ever-lower-performing educational system. We increase class size but think that computers will make that workable. We undermine educational advancement possibilities and funding for state schools, but suppose that giant online education factories will fill the gaps, at a profit. This is just...wrong. Technology is not a solution. It is, at best, a tool which can enhance an already-functioning classroom environment. Technology will not stand in for competent and knowledgeable teachers, meaningfully considered pedagogy, ethical resource allocation, the opportunity to discuss ideas with peers and subject-matter experts, and the dissemination of actual information. It just will not.

Now, I'm not an idiot: I know the internet is here to stay, and technology drives the economy and therefore will continue to grow and change much more quickly than our biological or social understanding of its ramifications. So, I accept its presence. I try to teach my students to make better use of the resources available to them online. I teach them how to manipulate Boolean search strings, how to find content for free without stealing from artists, how to evaluate online information for accuracy, relevance and scope. I bring in digital content and we unpack YouTube videos and stream movies or television shows to discuss. We connect over this week's super-cute llama videos, or last week's blue dress/white dress controversy. I answer emails and rely on Blackboard. Technology is part of the class.

But, I draw boundaries.

I do not allow cellphone use in the classroom. To take a call, send a text, or go online, they must leave the room. If we need a spot-answer during discussion, I turn on the projector for the class computer and we search together, so they can see what I did online to arrive at and validate the information needed. They do not pull out their phones and start Googling without guidance.

I do not use social media in the classroom and I don't engage with students over social media away from class. (That's a slippery slope I want no part of. At all.) Personally, and just for me, I don't think it's helpful to bring social media into the classroom. I am trying to engage them in a millenia-old conversation. I don't think that conversation is particularly helped by the introduction of more abstraction or more distancing, both of which technological intervention brings. Also, I am trying to help them learn how to engage deeply and in a continuous fashion with ideas and concerns, and I believe that is actively undermined by technology.

I'm not alone in this. Even some advocates of technology have turned against its use--and especially social media use--in the classroom. And yet, I seem to encounter ever more proponents of its use, many of whom I know to be engaged educators actively seeking classroom success and student improvement. So, what gives?

Some people who advocate tech in the classroom, especially "social learning" models, suggest that by embracing social media (et al), we are just embracing the world students actually inhabit and helping them to navigate it. That's a problem, to me. Since when is it our job, as educators, to accept the world's problems and limitations and just teach students to live within them, rather than to understand and challenge the world? Also, even if it were the mission to teach students to operate within the limitations of their era and resources, it would still require that they first learn. That requires sustained focus and deep engagement, neither of which is at all stimulated by technological intervention.  

The other big argument is something along the lines of "It's fun" or "It keeps me young." This actually does square with the research, but the message is not an entirely positive one. We do it because we enjoy it, not because it works. I've been searching, and I've yet to find one peer-reviewed study suggesting that multi-tasking improves outcomes or experience, other than it being entertaining. Are we privileging that metric?

I've heard the arguments in favor of a high level of tech use in the classroom, and the associated distraction, but I do not embrace or accept them. We are not teaching them to multi-task. There is no evidence that we are actually good multi-taskers, as individuals or as a species. The few who are have not been taught to be so, either. There is little to no evidence that smartphone use creates any meaningful knowledge or substantially improves classroom outcomes (at least, in the developed world). The few studies which promote technology in the classroom are not only backed by education-tech money, (looking at you, Brookings) but riddled with internal contradictions and false equivalencies. (Seriously, read that Brookings study. It's a primer in logical fallacies.)

In fact, all of the evidence--both epidemiological and cognitively longitudinal--suggests that reliance on technology creates distraction, undermines productivity, delays the development of interpersonal communication skills, and even causes physical problems like thumb-based carpal tunnel syndrome and neck strain from craning one's head downward to stare at the mini-screen all day. That says nothing of eye strain, or even the ability to make eye contact.

So, I use technology to enhance what we're already doing. I use it to show visual media, sometimes to bring in a relevant clip to discuss, and to streamline our communications. I use SafeAssign to help throw a roadblock in front of cheaters, and I take homework by email when a student cannot make it to class on deadline day. I also use it to distribute handouts, now that the lack of funding for education--and lack of prioritization of the classroom within school budgets--has made it ridiculously difficult even to get copies made. (Just take it to this building, six blocks away, between the hours of 3:17 and 3:42 a.m. Don't forget your sixteen digit access code, proof of citizenship, and to bring your own paper.)

Technology isn't educational. It's entertainment, It's problematically anti-ecological consumption. It's a good way to avoid work. It's a great way to figure out where you will meet your friends for pizza. It's an additional expense (or more) in everyone's month, which shows no signs of getting less expensive, despite market saturation. It's a source and stimulus for change, which can be good, bad or something else. Conversation is educational. And that's the one thing everyone's smart phone seems not to help at all: engagement with a conversation.

So for now, I'm going to ask them to put the phones down and close the laptops. I'll ask them questions and look them in the eye while they answer. I'll write things on the board and ask them to write them down, in their own hand. I'll do it the slow way. Somehow, we all still manage to arrive, even without the little birdie in our pockets chirping at us which way to go.

TL;DR: 1) Technology will not make anyone who already has access to it smarter or better educated, and 2) your inability to read this whole blog entry illustrates why that is true.