Should I ban wifi in my classes?

Would there be cries of outrage if I asked students to turn off their cell phones and shut the lids of laptops and tablets? I’ve never really cared much about students using wifi in my classes. I guess I’ve figured that if they can’t control their own tendencies toward distraction, that’s their problem – and they need to figure out how to deal with it. But maybe it’s not just their problem.

I was prompted to think about this after reading this article in the Washington Post by media prof Clay Shirky at New York University who has banned cell phones, laptops, etc, in his classes. Here are a few points he made that caught my attention:

  1. Devices that allow us to connect to wifi are pervasive. They make it too easy.
  2. Multi-tasking leads to low-quality work and poor memory retention (I can attest to that one).
  3. Social media is designed in a way that makes it hard for us to ignore it. It’s designed for distraction. So my lecture on the exhilarating topic of atmospheric stability is trumped by photos from the party last night just now posted on Facebook. Shirky states that it’s not that students are choosing not to pay attention in class.“I’ve stopped thinking of students as people who simply make choices about whether to pay attention, and started thinking of them as people trying to pay attention but having to compete with various influences, the largest of which is their own propensity towards involuntary and emotional reaction.” – Clay Shirky, Washington Post 9/25/14
  4. Screens are distracting to nearby students. Shirky compares this to the effect of second-hand smoke and he cites this article about a study supporting this idea. I’ve seen this first hand, and have, on occasion, had to pull a student aside to let them know how distracting their online-in-class activities for other students. What’s interesting, is that in every case, the student who complained about another student’s online activity was an ‘older’ student – meaning, my age or older. So maybe there’s some generational push-back on the use of these devices in a classroom?

What do you think? Would I just become one of those old Gen-X fogey’s who ‘just doesn’t understand today’s youth’ if I ban wifi? Or am I setting an example that these students need, about how to focus, and how to make some real headway in learning?

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