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Sharp minds wandering: Why your iPhone is killing Milken

- Monday, February 13, 2012

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Ami Fields-Meyer

Contributing Writer

You shut the classroom door behind you and walk across the balcony. You’re only leaving class for a few minutes to make a quick bathroom run, but you saunter through the quad on your way there. As you’re about to turn the corner, something catches your eye.

You stare, stalled in your tracks, into the classroom window in front of you. Through the half-drawn shades, you can just make out the history teacher and a few of your friends in the class. It isn’t the people in the room that have given you pause, though; it’s the luminous patches of glowing light that line the desks, almost uniformly.

Computers are killing Milken.

Schoology is efficient and both environmentally and financially sustainable. FirstClass keeps us connected. The one-to-one laptop program ushers us into the same era of globalization that has caused such drastic shifts in self-sovereignty throughout much of the rest of the world.

But there’s a caveat: Technology is neutral, but its uses and users are not. Milken, by its very nature, is frenzied, adrenalized and consistently active. (As are its students and teachers.) We may be advancing technologically, but our engagement and education are in retreat. We need to begin thinking beyond the laptop’s use as a tool, and realize its quickly solidifying potential as a weapon of distraction and numbness.

Cut back to the classroom: The students may, indeed, be looking at a pertinent document on Schoology, but the problem lies therein – they are looking, not reading; skimming, not absorbing; hearing, not listening, and certainly not engaging.

A teacher approached me after class a few weeks ago. “Did everyone seem a little bit distant today?” he asked. Yes, we had been distant. Earlier in the year, my classmates and I had been quick to respond to a point that seemed off-color, or to wrestle with the material presented. Now, we’re transfixed. The glowing arcs of MacBooks in Milken’s classrooms are causing a steep and rushed decline in engagement, counterargument, expression and even interest.

In another one of my discussion-based classes, our teacher often begins with a provocative question as a jumping-off point for active debate. But when I look around the room, almost every student who isn’t responding verbally is faced-down, eyes – and attentions – mesmerized by Tetris, QuickMeme.com and the beckon call of the Facebook news feed. I, too, find the screen to be enticing, and (often unknowingly) dive deep within a sea of articles and Internet phenomena that Mr. Lawrence would be quick to label “non-germane.”

My evidence is purely anecdotal; I have limited knowledge of statistics or empirical data to support my assertion. But my experiences as a student in classes that range from at-level to AP testify to the notion that the digital approach – categorical in its nature, far-reaching in its effects – is hindering the Milken education and undermining the dynamic and participatory environment that student and faculty leaders work so hard to build.

It’s not that we students have a malicious intent. We don’t sit around and think up ways to further distract our ever-distractible psyches. Few of us have a strong-willed desire not to learn. The problem? The Milken classroom – an environment that requires us to be present – is simply no longer conducive to being present.

The iPhone has taken Milken by storm. The BlackBerry still permeates campus. We use them during class – a shock to neither students nor faculty. In fact, Milken has its fair share of teachers whose phones make all sorts of noises mid-lesson. But the glow of the laptop and the buzz of our phones are denigrating the very basis upon which we learn; they are pulling us closer to the virtual world of profile pictures and pushing us further from the pragmatic and illuminating realms of derivatives, Federalism, punnet squares and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

The following is my proposal to begin alleviating the consequences of the transfixing glow. Some will call them radical, I call them practical: Students should stop using their laptops to take notes and revert to the pen and paper. Each student should put his or her shut-off phone on his or her desk before class. Teacher should do the same. Schoology, Evernote, FirstClass and other digital means of data sharing should be used for reading and submitting; when the primary function has been accomplished, we should shut our laptop covers and discuss.

It’s also important to note that many would argue in favor of Milken’s blocking of Facebook from school servers. For now, I think Facebook is serving a compelling purpose by keeping a digital history of campus goings-on; however, distraction will soon eclipse institutional memory as Facebook’s main byproduct at Milken. I am not against a discussion of a campus-wide ban on Facebook.

I haven’t yet been able to follow the above rules – but I try to. If I did, I would be both a better student and a more engaged member of the Milken community. Milken students don’t need to be convinced that we’re distracted, we just need help becoming less so. These rules shouldn’t be imposed from above, but, rather, should be a community-wide exercise in self-control.

I believe firmly that a transcendentalist strategy or an attitude that lures us to return to antiquity (cue Mr. Martin) would be better left to Thoreau and his kin. But laptops are moving us further from enlightenment – further, if you will, from developing the sort of “sharp minds” we hear so much about. One biblical prophet’s vision foretold that, in the messianic age, the lion would lay down with the lamb. I’m no prophet, but in my vision, on this campus, the smartphone would stay out of the hand.

Featured image courtesy of studentoncampus.com.



11 Comments

  1. Elizabeth H. says:

    I completely agree. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately–how much we rely on technology and how it keeps us from the connections that we used to work so hard to create. Great article!

    • RabbiMM says:

      Thank you to Ami for his though provoking article on this issue and for sharing his suggestions. You have started a valuable conversation and I hope you broaden the discussion at Milken.

      It appears from the comments that many students share Ami’s perspective on the issue.

      I want to challenge Ami and the group to consider that this issue is not exclusive to schools but is rather one that confronts all users of technology today, regardless of the context, and regardless of age. While schools offer a specific venue where engagement is valued and where we might develop a social contract to curb our use of technology, adults deal with these same issues in the workplace, in family life, and in their interpersonal relationships. Rather than say “our education is in retreat”, I wonder how you might foster a deep conversation of how people in the digital age develop a thoughtful and reflective sense of their ability to engage other people without initially offering strict guidelines for behavior. Among the 21st century skills all people need in the developed world is the ability to balance the great benefits of technology with our humanity. Those and other skills will be life skills that an education at Milken might have a hand in fostering.

      Check out Jaron Lanier on this issue: http://www.jaronlanier.com/gadgetcurrency.html

  2. Zoe L. says:

    Ami,

    Beautifully said and eloquently written. This has been a recurring issue in many of my classes, especially in recent years, after laptops were mandated for freshman. I, more often then I’d like, find my mind and my eyes being lured in and glued to an LED Macbook Pro screen in class. However, to avoid this phenomenon, that you so keenly point out in your article, I use, dare I say it, pen and paper in some of classes merely as a precautionary and preventative measure. Even some of my teachers insist that “today” for example, “will be a handwritten note day”, not only for the sake of clarity, but for the sake of have students actually pay attention and focus on the material, not on the latest NBA stats.

    Of course, like in discussing any controversial topic, there is obviously another side to the story. Technology has both saved us precious resources and enabled more dynamic learning in the classroom. For instance, as a student enrolled in AP Art History, I am able to save a significant amount of paper by typing notes and, if a topic is brought up in class that I do not know, I can simply use the internet and look it up. However, I will cede to the fact that I become distracted, even in the most attention demanding of AP’s, and the magnetic powers of facebook.com and fashion blogs are too strong for my feeble and preoccupied, teenage brain– I cave in, and enjoy a peek at the fashions in Paris or Milan.

    I wish that this complicated issue had a simple answer– but it does not. Like you mention in your article, banning sites like facebook might, in fact, prove productive and “should be a community-wide exercise in self-control.” However, once we begin discussing the issue of facebook and banning certain websites, we open up Pandora’s box. Who’s to say that banning a website is not like banning a book or like any other form of censorship? I digress. Ultimately, there is no satisfactory answer to the issue at hand, but, for the time being, we as students must muster our strength and willpower to use our computers for the betterment of Milken and for the progression of our knowledge.

    Sincerely Yours,

    Zoe L. ’12

  3. Brandon W. says:

    This is really an interesting, and well written with which I mostly agree. While I do agree that technology has been a major distraction that can hinder learning and participation, I firmly believe it is the responsibility of the student as to whether or not he/she becomes distracted. I myself have been keeping my phone in my backpack during classes so I don’t know when I have a new text message or Facebook notification. Students also have the option to use programs like Self Control in which you can allot yourself a certain amount of time each day during which you can be on Facebook or any other site you choose to set; but after that, it blocks you. I do not use this program because I am trying working on my self control without the use of external sources, but it is still nevertheless an option for others to utilize as they wish. But like I said before, this really is a great article with several points that I have noticed myself. Great job!

  4. Hannah S. says:

    I really agree with this. I think that Milken should take one day and ban all forms of technology and see how students would survive as a social experiment. It would only take one day and all students and teachers would be involved. Then we could see if grades would improve, if class discussions would have more depth, and above all, we could interact face to face, when we are in the same location rather than texting or facebook chatting across the building. Our student body would not have survived high school less than 5 years ago due to the tolerance of technology.

  5. Zbrown says:

    I appreciate this well articulated article Mr. Fields-Meyer. I certainly know first hand how very distracting a computer can be, be it Facebook or another website. I think however that banning certain websites, like Facebook, would only bring about strife to the majority of the community. It is difficult to ban one website, because generally when one is banned there is a sort of chain reaction, or the domino effect. If Facebook were banned, then next would be twitter, and AIM, Youtube and more.

    As many teachers of our senior class have said, it is up to us to choose whether or not to be respectful or not, and we are only harming ourselves. As a member of the Milken community, students should be given the opportunity to choose to engage in class, or to lose out on the class.
    This is just my opinion.

  6. Tiger says:

    Bring Council to Milken-the antidote to tech!
    Love the article Ami!

  7. Daniel Kort says:

    Very well-written article! My one comment is that laptop monitoring should only occur in at-level classes. Ambitious students who enroll in honors and AP classes are likely aware of the repercussions of dozing off into tetris land.

  8. Mr. P. Lindsay says:

    Ami, I doubt if I could have written a better article myself.

  9. Aaron D says:

    First off, great article Ami, very well thought out and well written. While I do agree with your point that the current implementation of technology at Milken does often do more harm than good, I think that your proposed solution would drive Milken in the wrong direction. I am a firm believer that technology is the future. In the early 1990′s, as the internet was just forming, many companies contemplated the option to provide their goods/services by means of the web, however, they were concerned about a lack security and the possibility of fraud. What is their decision was to reject technology? What would our world be like today? I do not claim to have the solution to Milken’s technology problem, however taking a step backwards and pushing technology away would not only be a detriment to Milken’s future student, but would cast a shadow over Milken in comparison with other schools as well.

  10. Student says:

    Great Idea to shut off our phones and place them on our desk… I did that in Rabbi Shawn’s class… ;)

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