Armchair Ecology

I am not competing against laptops when I teach.

Yesterday, I attended a workshop on principles for efficient teaching, organized by the Center for University Pedagogy at the Université de Montréal. As expected, one of the topics we adressed during the informal discussions was the use of laptops in the classroom by students. In particular, one of the notions we discussed was the idea of competition for the student’s attention, in a context where things they can do on their laptops provide more instant gratification than hearing me prattle about the curse of dimensionality.

But when I was thinking about this on the way home, I realized two things. First, as educators, we should only comment about this if our own practices were above reproach; second, the notion that we are competing with facebook, snapchat, or youtube (because yes, I’ve seen a student watch youtube during a class) is probably flawed because it puts the fault on the students.

Update: Before we start, I would like to point out that laptops are required for many students in order to learn. This is the reason for which I do not ban them in my classes. You can read more about these points in texts by Godden & Womack or Cortland.

To begin with, let’s not be hypocritical about our own use of laptops and cellphones during knowledge exchange scenarios. During the average conference, we spend a lot of time on email, finishing up our talk, reading papers, or just generally not paying much attention to the speaker. In my case, the reason is quite clear: not everything in ecology interests me. If you add, on top of that, mediocre presentation skills, I probably spend more time not engaged, rather than engaged, in talks.

Attention is a resource, and it is perfectly fine to manage it by not allocating much of it to things that are not particuarly interesting to us (as long as we are generally aware of the existince of these things). To push this reflexion a bit further, if I as a communicator or educator think something should be interesting to everyone, it is my responsibility to convey this. The fact that a thing interests me, does not makes this thing interesting for all.

Coming to this realization over the last few years was liberating. I do not feel offended when someone is obviously looking at their laptop if I am giving a presentation. I have made my case about why I think my message is important and relevant, and then the decision of paying attention or not is not in my hands anymore. If I want more people to listen, I need to do a better job at communication.

Which brings me to my second point: I am not competing against the myriad of possible distractions. Students (or colleagues) turn to these distractions because they answer a need that my own communication doesn’t. What leads students to browse facebook instead of paying attention is not the existence of facebook, or the presence of a laptop on their desk, or the fact that they have the app installed on their phone, or that we don’t strap them to chairs *A Clockwork Orange style; it’s that our communication is not efficient, adapted, or engaging enough. I’m not competing against these distractions, I am competing against a version of myself which is less efficient at teaching.

As long as this is not causing disruption, I don’t think less of students chosing to do something else than pay 100% attention to me for three consecutive hours (and by the way, this always struck me as an unrealistic expectation). When I see students doing something else (and we can tell; by the way the eyes move on the screen, the rythm of keystrokes, the facial expressions; we can always tell), it is feedback that I need to change something.

I think paying attention is about making choices. About picking what we think will matter, and therefore deserve an investment of our time, versus what is a bit too remote to our own interests to be entirely engaged in it. After I have made a case about what I believe is important, and why, students can make their own choice (especially since I mostly teach to seniors and post-graduates); this is the exact same logic I apply when deciding whether I listen carefully to a talk or whether I do some edits on a manuscript. Maybe they will get it wrong (and pay a price during the final exam, or in their professional live), but maybe they will make the right call. As long as there is no disruption to the students willing to pay attention, and as long as I have done my best possible case to explain why I think they should pay attention, this is out of my hands.