I am interested in the assumption that digital media deeply divide students and teachers and that a once covert war between “us” and “them” has turned into an open battle between “our” technologies and “their” technologies. On one side “we” the faculty control course management systems, online quizzes, wireless clickers, Internet access to PowerPoint slides and podcasts, and plagiarism detection software. On the student side “they” are armed with smart phones, laptops, music players, digital cameras, and social network sites. Young people are understood as the masters of ubiquitous computing and recording technologies, advanced weapons that allow both escape to virtual or social realities far away from the lecture hall or exposure of that lecture hall to the outside world, should they choose to document and broadcast the foibles of their faculty. Like the "predator panic" or the "cyberbulling panic" of recent years, the "distraction panic" posits that there is an unbridgeable generational divide that creates a potentially disastrous rupture in the fabric of society and the norms of the classroom. In my own teaching, I'm interested in bridging divides, but not every pedagogical experiment I conduct is a successful one, particularly in the first iteration of a new lecture class of 200+ students that I've scaled up from what was once a small senior seminar. If Dunbar's Number supposedly represents the upper limit of a functional community size that is defined by its social networks, the typical required course in public universities is also far over that number, and students' desires to rebel against factory-scale teaching are definitely understandable. Type the words “angry professor” into a search engine and be prepared for videos of professors destroying digital devices or chiding their students for inattention. As the many remixes, parodies, and hoaxes generated around these “angry professor” videos demonstrates, trying to police student distraction in this way often only seems to “feed the trolls.”
On January 27, 2011, I encouraged students in a large lecture hall class to write posts tagged with the course number on Twitter to facilitate an environment of lively exchange about course content. Relatively few posts in the Twitter backchannel were relevant to critical thinking about subject matter, and within minutes students used the mobile technology to coordinate an episode of mass coughing that seemed to express utter contempt for the specific material being taught about YouTube and disability to mark the campus’s “diversity day.” It took weeks of intervention aimed at deconstructing the anonymity of the lecture hall to recover even the original level of trust on both sides.
As I explain in this essay, my experiment with Twitter was a "teaching failure" on a number of counts, but I might argue that the "productive distraction" it generated certainly turned out to be a useful case study for many of the participants in the experiment. Most obviously, in a course where I took care to provide models and step-by-step instruction so that students could confidently produce work in new online genres, I made a critical mistake in not modeling and providing feedback about how to deploy microblogging text in a class setting, as teaching assistant Tara Zepel points out in her essay. Although I recently led an online workshop about Writing as an Information Art with accomplished Twitter pedagogue David Parry, I probably didn't do enough to orient my students to navigating the rapidly shifting information flows of Twitter in ways that might feel intellectually meaningful to them. From the students' perspective, a number of them saw their subversive use of the technology as an act of political power, analogous to the smart mobs in the Middle East and North Africa using cell phones, text messages, and social networks to destabilize authoritarian regimes. One student blog post argued that the “humorous/disruptive scene” that resulted from the Twitter experiment is “not something to be belittled.”Another blog entry described the instigator of the coughing as “one clever student” who led the others to “feel quite proud of ourselves." The “clever student” who led the in-class revolt has actually produced a video esay for TNE, which explores the analogy further and argues that the Twitter exercise made power structures in the lecture hall more visible to the students who spontaneously organized.
However, in thinking about on-campus anxieties about technologies and learning, not all students imagine institutional takeover as their goal. But even in documenting how students feel incapacitated by the status quo, they observe how digital technologies shape their relationships to teaching and with faculty. For example, one of my students engaged in a structural critique of the way multitasking and distraction are engineered into student study practice by curricular designers themselves now that higher education is structured around an infinite number of digital supplements. As a way to think about issues of digital inclusion and exclusion, I've also included another video essay from a student in the class who champions the leveling effect of short-form mobile communication as a way to build bridges between students and faculty. Rather than produce simple “pro” or “con” pieces that take sides in the debate over the consequences of student “distraction,” these three students focus on questioning institutional conventions about who controls discourse in the lecture hall, who gets to decide what is essential and what is supplemental, and who gets to talk to whom and how informally.
Certainly the Twitter experiment helped students understand that digital tools could be used politically on campuses, but those undergraduates still needed theoretical tools and practical guidelines for more meaningful ethical, rhetorical, and historical reflection, once that aspect of unequal power relations was revealed. Too much of that process probably happened after the fact for students, but this project in TNE is part of my attempt to foster more conversation about how faculty should participate – and sometimes not participate – in the digital backchannels of their courses.
Some colleagues have been horrified by my detachment in studying this scene of pedagogical trauma so clinically or by my seemingly cavalier willingness to expose an intensely personal moment of lecture hall humiliation to public view, but I think all faculty need to look at edge cases like this one in order to figure out what good teaching and learning should be in the digital era. In other words, we need to get beyond propping up petty dictatorships that are obsessed with banning laptops or cellphones just as much as we need to get beyond romanticizing revolutionary clichés about the wonders of the “digital generation.” After all, messier issues about everyday emotional engagement and alienation in the mixed reality of the lecture hall are too often ignored by assessment-oriented distance learning advocates who want to treat education as a mechanical and measurable process entirely lacking in affect. The fact that it is still possible to have scenes like this in which both faculty and students can experience strong feelings of betrayal and mistrust is something that should be examined.