How Not to Enforce a “No Technology” Rule in Class

It is no secret that many professors are not big fans of distracted students. Even more so, some are deeply offended and can even get hostile.

Take this professor who uses laptop distraction as an object lesson for his lecture class.

He staged the event, by the way. Nevertheless, is that the right strategy to start off a semester and create a rapport with your students?

On the one hand, we can sympathize with the logic. It is one thing for a student not to pay attention and get caught in their own distractions. If that lack of attention is then distracting others, the problem is much larger.

On the other hand, with the way that students are using technology and communicating, it is not as cut and dry. While students may seem to be distracted, it may also be that they are not. If we expect a student to stay seated and pay attention to a lecture, distraction will reduce memory retention. But technology is also challenging teachers to be smarter about how to use time in the classroom.

One idea is to use “technology breaks” where you check your phone, the web, whatever, for a minute or two and then turn the phone to silent, the computer screen off and “focus” on work or conversation or any nontechnological activity for, say 15 minutes, and then take a 1-2 minute tech break followed by more focus times and more tech breaks.

Indeed, more frequent, shorter breaks during a class are beneficial for everyone involved. Forcing students to get up and get the blood moving will yield a more productive and attentive class.

These devices are part integrated into the social and psychological fabric of today’s undergraduate. Phones, tablets, iPods, and laptops are not simply ancillary devices. They are are the tools to create and maintain critical connections to peers and yes, even course content. Finding ways to validate and cultivate that central aspect of student identity is increasingly important in how we teach.

So where is the balance between distraction and integration to help students succeed?

Humanities: A Waste of Money?

With the focus of higher education on jobs and income more than ever, it is a wonder why the liberal arts and the humanities are worth the investment. A history or philosophy class can’t deliver skills that the workforce requires, right?

A very small fraction of graduates will qualify for an MBA, law school, or medical school. A small fraction of undergraduate students in the sciences complete a biology or chemistry degree. More jobs simply require a bachelor’s degree as evidence of some set of competencies – from clerks to kitchen staff. James McGrath makes a point of this:

I wonder whether the question “Will this be on the final exam?”, and the sense many of today’s students have that core curriculum and general education courses are irrelevant to their chosen vocation, are not connected. Both reflect the belief that the future will follow a predictable path, and that all students need to do is gather up the answers now and then have them ready for the moments when they are needed.

I am finding the “final exam” rhetoric no more prevalent than in recent talks about higher education ratings and jobs. The final exam is employment and the outcome of employment is a return on investment in that degree. In the end, getting a job and money are why we go to school. This would mean that religious studies is superfluous unless wrapped in, say, an international business degree. Philosophy is pointless unless it might help you in, say, debating in a political or law career. Music, art, and literature? These are clearly wastes of money and time.

Once again liberal arts and humanities are on the chopping block in a revolving door of utilitarianism.

Not everyone in the business world would agree that a liberal education is superfluous. Learning how to think and acquire a diverse plasticity of the mind is valuable.

The people who succeed in more expensive labor markets like the U.S. will be those who can think creatively and generate the ideas that will propel economic growth. Such skills, (Vivek Ranadive, CEO of Palo Alto tech firm Tibco Software) said, are best fostered in a traditional liberal-arts environment.

Ironic how we keep coming back to a liberal education and the liberal arts to “reform” higher education when education takes a utilitarian route.

While outsourcing skills learned in a liberal arts education to the MOOC environment is debatable at best, dumping what seem to be “useless” courses will prove a bad investment in the economy and in society once again. Re-envisioning models for teaching students to think is always important. Cutting programs based on arbitrary return on investment data points has no long-term gains.

5 Things I Should Have Done Earlier to Finish My Ph.D.

I began my Ph.D. with a big idea. I can’t even remember what that idea was. Regardless, it was amazing and fantastic! Which is why I don’t remember what it was. I completed my dissertation in the Fall of 2012 and defended in the Spring of 2013. The end product wasn’t exactly what I had planned and I basically wrote the entire thing in those few months.

I learned mostly what I would have done differently to make the process work more quickly, and more efficiently in my favor. Some of this is advice I received early on but failed to heed. Some of these are little bits that helped me solely out of necessity. The outcome is that I was able to completely rework the first three chapters, collect data, and write the rest of the dissertation – in one semester. Hope these help!

Skim through the tables of contents of dissertations from my program of study. I was thinking about inventing some new wheel or widget with my project. Very little is new in the world of academia. What is novel is usually a different angle on the same object. Those dissertations that go on for awards or get immediate book deals are not the norm. It all depends on your goal. Did I want to complete the degree for my professional career or did I want to shoot for a tenure track position? I wanted the professional goal. Once I accepted that I simplified my crazy mind and followed the same structure other dissertations in my program used. There is nothing wrong or unfair about this. I used a standard style. This was easier for my committee and was easier for me in the long run.

Read other dissertations in your field, especially those related in some way to your problem statement. These are both your peers and competition in the academic arena. If you are seeking tenure-track it is a cutthroat competition. There are likely people who write on certain things far better than you. Get humble enough early so that you can get your own argument laser-focused. Never be dismissive in your critiques of others’ work because these are likely your peers. Be respectful. This is a dialogue and your job is to share your unique contribution to it. Your work is part of a conversation much bigger than you. With humility as a corrective to confidence the process can be more constructive and fun. Yes…this can be fun if you want it to be.

Write often even if it sucks and won’t be part of your dissertation. I have pages of content that I did not use. I simply wrote. Just putting things down on the page gave me an object to work with rather than some abstract, shapeless thoughts jumping around like, well, squirrels in my mind. Once I put ideas on the page I found I had good content to include and ideas that were much clearer than I had previously thought. Jumping into writing is important and is an instant cure for writer’s block.

Listen to your committee and be open-minded and willing to make revisions. Then make those revisions reasonably quickly. Remember that your committee is a small group of faculty who are the gatekeepers to your entrance as a scholar into their field. What they pass is important to their own professional life as their names will be attached to your dissertation on the second page. Your work is also reflective of the institution granting the degree. Just do as they ask and seek clarification if you are not sure. Elect a committee that can make solid comments on your work and that will be responsive. I had a great committee but I chose a great committee. That choice is your political groundwork. Make a good choice and taking their advice will come almost naturally.

Be a human being. I mean this. People need to eat and sleep. People need to laugh and love. We need air and exercise. Without forcing yourself to do these basic requirements for human survival your work will suck, your mind will be less sharp, and you will be miserable. The more human you are in this process the happier you will be. Rather than go for that fifth cup of coffee, cigarette, and burrito, make a smoothie, go for a bike ride, take in a movie, go for a hike. The more human you are in the process the more human your writing will be.

I wish I had done these things from the beginning. My problem is that I don’t think of these practices until I have to practice them. Start early and get some structure around your work with these ideas. This experience may be more fun that you thought it could. The difference between fun and misery is a choice.

What ideas and advice would you give a stressed out doctoral student?

Bullied Students Go Online

Online learning is growing. It is growing quickly compared to other enrollment where overall college enrollment has dropped. This is true both in the higher education sector as well as in the K-12 sector. The question is why are students and parents continue to flock to it?

There are a few boilerplate reasons consistently cited: flexibility of schedules, no commute, workplace subsidization, easy means to degree completion, etc. I am interested in a few other reasons for this growth and one struck me as a statistic we should look at more closely in the coming years: bullying.

Check this out.


That is a lot of desire for change in environment. What is going on in our schools then? It might not be just the curriculum but the places we are sending our kids. Would you send your kid to a babysitter’s house where you really aren’t sure what happens there? All you know is that the parent comes in once in a while to make sure things are ok. Most of the time the babysitter doesn’t have time to watch all of the kids and the kids are free to do what they please.

Yet that’s what happens in schools all over the country.

Our kids go there for up to 10 hours a day if they are in extra-curricular activities. We don’t get to see what is happening there. If this data is correct, as a society we are trusting the school less and less to offer a safe learning and social environment for our kids.

Think about it. What kind of environment are you comfortable leaving your kids with?

During the week, they are there more than they are with you.