Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The rampant professional malpractice in colleges

A new academic year and I once again start worrying whether students will gain anything from my classes.  It is not merely the subject matter that I am concerned about.  In fact, I have often told students that the subject that I teach is merely a vehicle for something way more important, which in our university we have defined as undergraduate learning outcomes.  A college degree is not merely about the degree.

If this was a challenge in the past, it is becoming even more of a problem now, thanks to the ubiquitous technology that lies on the palms and laps of students, to which they are attracted like moths to a light.  Two essays at two different places both address this same issue: Can students who are constantly on their devices actually learn? asks one, and the other essay's author has a simple bottom-line to students: Welcome, freshmen. Look at me when I talk to you.

The two authors are no Luddites--they even teach classes with and about technology.  I too--with all my use of technology in my personal and professional life--am no Luddite.  From what we see in the classroom, we fear the impact of technology on student learning.
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.
Consumed by technology that they cannot bear to disable or ignore, my students lose awareness of what’s going on around them. They don’t know what they’ve missed – often, they don’t know that they’ve missed anything. They’re still accountable for it, but such mindlessness has become an epidemic
Even in the old days, we faced a challenge in making sure that students understood concepts and picked up skills that they would build on from one class to another.  Now, it is worse.  Because, most of the time, students think they are getting a lot done by juggling one too many things at the same time--multitasking--when the evidence is otherwise.
An even bigger problem is the way that technology damages critical-thinking skills.
Critical thinking does not come naturally to an overwhelming majority of us.  We have to work on gaining that skill, which we do in many different ways.  Googling ad nauseam ain't a substitute; focused attention is needed, but that's exactly what is missing too.

This blog by itself is an example of digital technology providing immense opportunities for learning, but "they also present dangers, which we should explain when digital natives arrive on campus."  Most educators do not discuss these dangers with students.  New student orientation is all about alcohol, drugs, safe space, trigger warnings, sex, free condoms, how to wipe one's butt, ... everything except the very reason why the freshmen are there in the first place: Learning!
Some frightening data suggests that habitual computer activity, especially on social media, hampers our social and emotional development, particularly our ability to empathize with others. Clifford Nass saw this firsthand while serving as a dorm adviser at Stanford, where he urged students to turn off their devices and converse directly with one another.
"We’ve got to make face-to-face time sacred," Nass told a Stanford audience in 2013, a few months before he died, "and we have to bring back the saying we used to hear all the time and now never hear: ‘Look at me when I talk to you.’ "
It’s hard to know why our colleges have been so slow to share this information with our students.
As I have often blogged about, empathy is one of the most valuable and important aspects of what it means to be human.  Empathy can't be Googled.  Online, one can be anonymous and easily be the least empathetic low-life douchebag ever.  Harshness and bullying are de rigueur in the cyberworld!

Empathy has to be experienced and learnt in the real life, by engaging with real people.  But, higher education increasingly fails at this.
Our students won’t learn much of that by sitting in front of their screens.
And they won’t learn nearly as much in college — from one another or from us — if they’re living online. That’s not an opinion; it’s a fact. Hiding it from our students is worse than embarrassing, to our profession and ourselves. It’s malpractice.
And thus I begin another academic year.  Maybe even more students (and faculty and administrators too) will get highly irritated with me for not going with the flow and asking for more money.  But, I need to continue with my approach that keeps my blood pressure low and lets me sleep well--so that I can exit healthily ;)


Mike Hoth said...

Computers are definitely a problem when it comes to promoting interaction between students, but it isn't entirely a problem made by students! My wife and I each had our share of professors who pushed technology onto us. Michelle was actually required to take a course called "Technology in the Classroom" where she was taught that shoving your students in front of a screen is helpful. We are encouraging students to hide in their digital worlds.

Of course, putting free condoms everywhere doesn't really teach empathy, either. It does promote face-to-face time though! ;)

Ramesh said...

Its not only in the academic world that this problem has infested. Its far worse in the business world. Today its impossible to hold a sensible meeting. I am not joking - the average person in a physical meeting is also on a conference call, checking email on his laptop and answering whatsapp messages on the phone at the same time. It has become a complete waste. I actually said this to one of my customers - I am not going to ever do a call with you or come and meet you because its useless. You are never really on the call because you are doing something else and not listening and as for a physical meeting, its a joke even though I've flown a 1000 kms to come there. Lets just stick to emails !!

Anne in Salem said...

As I read the post, I thought about the rough transition to the real world when these students can't spend their time with their faces in screens. Then I read Ramesh's comment and learned I was wrong.

Maybe this is the real reason productivity is lagging . . .

Sriram Khé said...

Yes, Mike, it is atrocious how education pushes technology for the sake of technology, as if not using inappropriate technology is the same as prehistoric conditions! Instead of developing the "soft skills" that employers are looking for, we are making sure that students would be most comfortable not interacting with humans in the real world.
Last year, the saddest moment was when a student said in class that she prefers buying online because it avoids the humans. No, that was not the saddest moment. The saddest was when quite a few students in class agreed with her :(

If that's how it is with real "adults" in the real world, then you can imagine how awful it has become with the "kids" adults in college classrooms. Right, Ramesh?

Anne, please do not go the route of measuring productivity in the service sector--you will then quickly find out I am a waste of taxpayer money ;)

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