Sort Of (Shirking Shirky)

So, Clay Shirky appears to have checked out, and I have but a few scattered remarks.

Digital Classroom, by Dan Hetteix

Digital Classroom, by Dan Hetteix

Let me start by acknowledging that I am actually okay with asking students to turn off particular devices as is necessary. Different situations require us to be present to one another in different ways. Teachers all the time ask their students to do and not do some things at some, certain times. Indeed, there is a boring mundanity to Shirky's otherwise melodramatic conversion.  

It is, nevertheless, the melodramatic and unthinking way in which Shirky, who really ought to know better, makes his case (and, even more so, the even less nuanced way his case has been taken up by others).  

Before I move to my numbered points below (oh, it's coming), I'll even grant that the evidence Shirky deploys about distractions is rigorous. Whether anybody needed evidence that distractions are, in fact, distractions, is another question entirely. Likewise dubious is the assumption that teachers who allow laptops simply don't know any better. All of this evidence, however, concerns the distractive potential of such devices, which presupposes that there is something else students ought to be attending to. In this case, I presume, this something else is Clay Shirky giving a lecture about new media technology, and, in that case, the evidence is equally rigorous that lectures aren't a very effective way of teaching. But all of this is rather quite beside the point. 

As I see it, there are three problems, generally, with how we discuss "technology in the classroom":

  1. We often employ a less that sophisticated understanding of technology. Here is great nutshell definition from Douglas Adams that gets at this: 1) Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. 2) Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. 3) Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things. In the case of teaching, this definition allows (or compels) us to ignore, for instance, that the classroom itself is a technology. We can also ignore that the lecture is a technology. I would rather we start from the assumption (where else?) that human experience always has, is, and will be mediated by technology, starting with language. (I'd link to something Walter Ong wrote here, but you can just Google it.) 
  2. We treat technology on quantitative terms (how much technology we have in the classroom) rather than on qualitative terms (what kinds of tools for which kinds of situations). A ban just tries to have less technology. And the same critique holds true for those who think more technology is some kind of solution. I'd prefer that we have the conversation in terms of "better" or "worse" technologies, which would necessarily be tied to specific goals.
  3. Treating technology as we do in points #1 and #2, and here is the big problem, leads us to leave un-interrogated the "traditional" ways we teach (see clause one of Adams's definition). The one thing Shirky hardly talks about in his editorial is actual pedagogy: the reasons he thinks he ought to be lecturing on this topic rather than some other form of teaching. To be fair and to be clear, I am okay with lectures when used effectively: I give and often eagerly listen to them. The problem is lectures, in particular, get naturalized in such discussions of technology. When we (quantitatively) add "technology" to the classroom, we imagine we are adding it on top of the lecture. Lectures thus become the (unchallenged) baseline for teaching, and, as such, they are no longer seen (or interrogated) as an historical, cultural artifact (historicize, historicize, historicize, except when...).

I'd like to hear us ask different, more complex questions. Debating the place of laptops and smartphones in the classroom is not unimportant; I am glad we debate this. I like the debate so much, that I would like to see debates about what we do in and bring to the classroom become the basis for all such pedagogical discussions. And, to return to Shirky's turning away, I'd ask why should students attend (listen, watch, respond) to us? In terms of technology in the classroom, this is a question that hardly ever gets asked, much less answered.