Helping our Students Unplug so They Can Upgrade their Minds and Renew their Humanity
The average American high school or college student is adept at using technology. However, many seem unable to refrain from using technology. As educators, it is our duty to provide our students with a basic set of skills: critical thinking; clear communication, both in print and in speech; and careful reading and processing of information, discerning its validity. In the process, we should cultivate their character, that they may develop greater wisdom, moral integrity, patience, empathy, and compassion in a world with a shortage of these virtues.
While technology does provide some compelling avenues for us to train students’ core intellectual skills, it does virtually nothing to enhance character development. We must encourage our students to unplug, so that they can upgrade their minds and renew their humanity. We should not discard technology; it provides useful tools. But we must teach our students that it is not the only tool and not always the best.
I suggest two metaphors for addressing the issue, one reflecting the problem and the other the solution. In Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994), the Federation encountered technology dependent beings known as the Borg. They were organic-machine hybrids (cyborgs, hence the name) who lacked individuality and “assimilated” all species with which they came into contact. They were dependent on technology for their sustenance and identity.
Granted, our students are not cyborgs; but many of their lives, intellectually and socially, are defined by technology. In the extreme, the user becomes the used and the consumer becomes the consumed. Too many believe the myth that “social media” are social. In fact, many of them lead relationally impoverished lives, awash in a sea of personal information, their own and others’, yet profoundly beset by loneliness. We, their professors, can give them the tools rectify that.
Rather than reject technology altogether, we have the opportunity to guide students in using it with greater moderation. We have the power to help them perceive that reality lies beyond the limits of their technologically defined worlds. This was the role of Morpheus in The Matrix (1999). He guided Neo to unplug, to see reality, and to plug in again, using his new insight to liberate others.
In practical terms, helping our students unplug involves planning class time and assignments that require non-technological forms of participation. Classrooms have the potential to be communities rich with interpersonal interaction. Whether in small groups or as a whole class, we can give each other the gift of unhurried time, unmediated by technological devices. Having a ban on laptops helps. I encourage my students that taking notes by hand makes them easier to remember; recent studies have supported this: “a study carried out by Professor Virginia Berniger at the University of Washington found that handwriting activated more of the brain than keyboard writing, including areas responsible for thinking and memory” (http://moreintelligentlife.com/node/4965). Fully in the moment, we have the freedom to discuss the texts and ideas at hand.
Outside of class, there are even clearer options. I assign a combination of reflection papers and papers integrating personal reflection with analysis of primary texts. Such assignments make plagiarism especially sad (and easy to catch), since they require students to produce what they cannot find online: their own response to the ideas of others. Students know where to dig for information; there is plenty of that on the internet. They need to learn where to dig for their own insights.
For research papers in upper-level courses, I recommend two rounds of drafts: a first draft, using only online sources; and a final draft, using only traditional sources and including a summary critique of how the traditional sources differed from those available online.
The above suggestions most directly apply to the humanities, fields concerned, by definition, with what makes us authentically and more fully human. I have no answers for fields that are more information-driven. But I know that the de-technologizing and moderated re-technologizing of our students is urgent for the humanists among us, integral to the case we must make for our own continued relevance.
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