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The attention economy is corrupting the classroom

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You have 15 minutes. What would you — a curious, respectful student part of a privileged 4.3% — rather indulge: an Instagram post or the insights of a leading academic? 

The choice seems obvious. But our everyday practices speak to a bleaker reality. The promises of intellectual vitality we made when applying to Stanford ring hollow in the average classroom, in which at any moment more than one person is totally tuned-out, typing away on iMessage, tagging friends in memes or writing emails to “optimize” their time.

If intellectual vitality is indeed important to us, we should turn off all technology during lecture, unless it is an accessibility requirement or part of the syllabus. Although technological distractions appear trivial, small behaviors of distracted learning and disrespect toward speakers enacted on a large scale make a phenomenon. And phenomena come to characterize a culture. Is the university culture we want one in which we choose momentary online gratification over the insights of our lecturers or classmates? I hope not.

To begin with, distracted learning can hardly be considered learning at all. If every five minutes of lecture is punctuated by a glimpse at our phones, then are we really internalizing the narrative someone is trying to deliver to us? Teaching is a series of sentences that, taken together, tell a story. Even “tangents” can speak to some thematic concern in the story. If they don’t, listening teaches the essential skill of how to separate the noise from substance. The only way of knowing what matters and why is to hear it out. What’s more, a UC Irvine study recently found that once interrupted from our work, it can take nearly 23 minutes for us to get back on track. In the classroom setting, this translates to 20 minutes spent reoriented yourself to a discussion that might only be 50 minutes long. Distracted learning undermines our intellectual experience in the classroom. 

Distracted learning has ripple effects on the learning of others. I’ve often experienced small group break-out discussions devolve into a circle of people on their phones. After devising a baseline answer to the question we are supposed to tackle, and sometimes even before then, we escape onto the Internet. Few try to make conversation or refine the group’s thesis. A similar dynamic carries over into larger discussion, where contributions are made against the staccato of classmates typing things that are not notes. 

The obnoxious contributions distracted students make are a testament to the social costs of distracted learning. I’m sure many of us can recall people making comments that unoriginally rehash a discussion that has already concluded. This is often an attempt to pass as attentive when we’ve been anything but. If you have the unfortunate luck of sitting next to such a student, a University of Michigan study found that their screen could distract you from classroom discussion, too. 

Contrived and half-hearted discourse from distracted students is certainly not the ideal of a liberal education we should aspire to. And, for those who did not come to Stanford for a liberal arts education, then holding up the artifice of distracted learning against a $70,000 tuition ought to make us consider what five minutes on Facebook is really costing us. 

Beyond deterring learning, using technology in the classroom is disrespectful to speakers. If you were talking to me, and I, growing bored, decided to shoot my more interesting friend a text or seven, it would be entirely reasonable for you to be offended, hurt even. The hurt it would cause is sufficient to have any decent friend fight the temptation to distraction. Why is it that similar regard for speakers in the classroom is overridden? Arguably, classroom discussions demand even more respect than a private conversation because the speaker subjects themselves to great vulnerability. And if the speaker also happens to have a Ph.D., then they’ve not only daringly made their ideas open to you, but they’ve also braved several years of education and a brutal job market to deliver to us the content that they do! The least we can do is give them a listen. 

At this stage, some might object that I’ve been uncharitable to the distracted student, painting them as a rude pseudo-intellectual who goes around torching ideals of education. They might point to the other kind of distracted student, the one who is just trying to survive in the wild ride that is Stanford, where time is scarce and commitments are ever-mounting and our inboxes ping like they are malfunctioning. This is a student who must work on their p-set during group discussions. They fill in their petition for 22 units as a lecturer delves into an anecdote. They cannot help but edit their article, which is due in two hours, during a classmate’s PWR2 presentation. This student was me last spring — balancing 20 units and a heatwave and assignments and internship rejections. 

So I sympathize with the desire to optimize. In fact, I often look on enviously at the (ostensible) deftness with which fellow Stanford students shift between strands of their lives — tabs on their browsers — and squeeze each day to its very fibers. Opportunity cost seems but a myth in their era of technology, at a school like ours. If minutes of our lives can be directed something better than the physical reality we are situated in, why shouldn’t they be, right?

I want to suggest that such optimization is not optimal. For starters, the same implications of poorer learning and disrespect also apply when we are distracted for nobler reasons than to find out what the football score is or how many people liked your LinkedIn update. Beyond this, the optimizer is feeding into the sketchy idea that what matters is to do more, rather than to do well.

There is something to be said about doing deep work and not merely broad work. I often wonder whether, if there were no laptops or cellphones in a classroom, how many more people would have a firmer grasp on what we are discussing. I wonder how much of a greater appreciation we would have for the creativity and resilience our peers can show in intellectual environments. I wonder how many more contributions would be made that push our collective understanding closer to the nuance and dimensionality that is the ideal end of education. When I ponder these things, the costs of giving into digital distraction pile on fast. Using technology in the classroom arrives at a price not worth paying.

Contact Megha Parwani at mparwani ‘at’ stanford.edu.

I am committed to overthinking everything and then writing about all the things I've been overthinking.