Cyberslacking in Shanghai: What My Students Taught Me

A pupil uses a tablet during courses in a classroom at the Leonard de Vinci 'connected' middle school in Saint-Brieuc, wester
A pupil uses a tablet during courses in a classroom at the Leonard de Vinci 'connected' middle school in Saint-Brieuc, western France on September 12, 2013. The Leonard de Vinci school is one of the 23 middle schools in France to be connected to the internet and to be using new information technologies during courses. AFP PHOTO / DAMIEN MEYER (Photo credit should read DAMIEN MEYER/AFP/Getty Images)

Teaching a writing and "Great Books" course to 21 middle school students at an international school in Shanghai this summer, I found myself amidst an intense debate about using electronic devices in the classroom. The anti-device faction, which included parents and students, worried about one particular problem: Cyberslacking, which usually refers to surfing the Internet and shirking one's duties at work.

Cyberslacking is also a problem in education settings, which is why so many institutions and teachers ban personal devices in the classroom. Several important statistical studies corroborate claims about the seemingly inevitable temptation of cyber-slacking in classroom environments, showing that factors such as consumerism, escapism, lack of attention, distraction by others' "misuse" of technology, boredom, and apathy towards course material may all contribute to cyberslacking.

I should say up front, when I teach college in the US I have students bring their own devices, and I also struggle with their distraction. But I continue to allow devices for numerous reasons: Conscious of college costs, trying to conserve paper, and teaching older texts, I use exclusively pdfs and links. I deploy a lot of social media and in class. Most importantly, my students, especially the international ones, benefit from the ability to search words in the texts and compare with translations in their own language. I know many of my colleagues, who appreciate technology nevertheless adopt a different tact.

For example, Joshua Landy, Professor in French Language, Literature and Civilization at Stanford University finds "a laptop-free zone conducive to more engaged teaching experiences." Likewise, Dan Edelstein, Professor of French and, by courtesy, of History at Stanford University, has "moved away from distributing readings as PDF's, or links when available (particularly older primary sources):"

Not only do students seem to read them less carefully on a screen, but they tend to bury themselves in their devices during class, rather than face the other students and myself. So even if the students are still technically "on task," the device can act as a barrier for discussion.

Not disagreeing with Landy and Edelstein, but anticipating language and knowledge differences in Shanghai, especially with middle schoolers aged 11-13, I opted to include devices.

When I teach I walk around the class. All too often I can feel students quickly switching screens back to the course material as I approach. Rather than chide an individual student, I announce to the class as a whole: "You don't really want to surf the Internet or text in class, do you? Unless, you are prepared, or your family is, to pay $300 an hour to for you to zone out."

Cyber-slacking is so prevalent I even use it as an example when explaining the Greek concept of Akrasia, or weakness of the will, to my college philosophy students. In Shanghai, I also found ample opportunity to introduce the concept of Akrasia to middle schoolers: "What do you do in the classroom that you know is bad for you and others, you're not supposed to do, but do it anyway?" The students quickly responded:

Surf the web. Check email. Text. Shop. Game.

Considering banning devices, I consulted my colleagues at Hybrid Pedagogy, an academic journal of teaching and technology. Sean-Michael Morris, Senior Editor of Research and Education at Instructure, and co-director of Hybrid Pedagogy, asserts that technology itself is no panacea, and prefers to ask instead "how does learning happen now that human experience relies on, is mediated by, and engages constantly with digital technology?" For him shutting down the laptops isolates students from this reality:

When instructors' policies keep laptops closed, tablets and phones turned off, we are closing the door on what is real and relevant in student lives.

In a piece called "Trust, Agency, and Connected Learning," Jesse Stommel, Assistant Professor at UW-Madison, founder and director of Hybrid Pedagogy describes his use of technology in the classroom as "more about encouraging agency" than deploying and policing technology for its own sake. Does he have to monitor students' usage? Sometimes. Is it as big a problem as others might suggest?

There are times I might step in as an "authority," but the situation has to rise well above the clicking of a keyboard or a distracted glance at a Facebook wall.

For Stommel technology is less the problem than traditional classroom dynamics. "Start by abolishing fixed-seat, face-forward lecture halls where feigned attention is valorized," he asserts. "Then, let's talk learning and distraction."

In trying to apply such advice to my classroom in Shanghai--middle schoolers! distraction! six-hour class! five days a week!! it was also helpful to remember Howard Rheingold's measured view of technology: "It is possible to think critically about technology without running off to the woods."

Following Rheingold's advice of a "mindful" usage of technology, using it sometimes where appropriate, and also turning it off, I decided to teach some classes with devices, some without, and asked students to respond in writing with their opinions. Empirically the experience presented some interesting differences.

During days without devices the students were unable to easily look up new vocabulary or concepts and relied on me to give them definitions. Their group work became less independent because I provided the sole authority for any information they sought. (I encounter this problem in college as well when the Internet goes down in my classrooms).

At break time without devices, however, these middle school students ran outside to play sports and socialize. On rainy days they played a lively game of indoor tag that included all genders and ages. Students shrieked happily, tearing around their school hallways and upsetting various administrators, who were keen for me to return to technology to the classroom, if only to silence the noise!

I also sorely missed the Internet, even in its censored state behind the Great Fire Wall of China and the school's own filters.

But technology in the classroom presented problems as well. On days when I permitted devices I also noticed that students felt less inclined to physical activity and social interaction during breaks. Even when I tried to shoo them out of the classroom for a break, they engaged entirely in sedentary gendered segregation: the boys played Age of Empires on their laptops and the girls watched movies and TV together.

Worst of all, I found that technology invited a new kind of tension in the classroom. Not only were there students and parents peering in from other classes checking for potential cyber-slacking, some students in the class felt the need to police each other and the slackers responded by trying to shame those students--"why are you such a snitch!" growled one boy, who had been busted for texting under the table by the girl near him.

Even some of our collaborative teacher/student designed projects foundered if they went on too long. Using Minecraft for a thought experiment, students worked well for about 20 minutes with lots of productive discussion in each group. And then, gaming addiction mode took over. Forsaking their breaktime, the students couldn't stop building their projects, and began competing with, spying on and sabotaging each other in polarized gendered groups. The quality of discussion and educational rewards rapidly diminished after 30 minutes. When we finished the project, some of the best designs were simple sketches on paper.

My students, who are all proponents of using the Internet and electronic devices in class, acknowledge the difficulties. The one who got shamed for "snitching" and had her Minecraft design attacked by some of the boys, argued that it was as much the student responsibility to resist cyber-slacking as the teacher's duty to monitor.

Other students affirmed this measured view of using personal devices in class, but argued that such usage trained them in important research skills and even helped them formulate better questions. One student remarked:

Sometimes I missed something in the discussion, and I didn't want to disrupt the class or get in trouble for whispering to a friend, so I looked it up on my phone and then sometimes the answers I found helped me ask my question in a better way that helped me more and the other students too.

Another student offered this argument.

It's awesome when you ask the teacher a question that brings up new material and during class discussion she can send us all a document or link to a related article in class and we can compare readings and different arguments.

Still another student wrote with this suggestion:

I think it's great practice having phones and laptops in the classroom. If we can practice using them responsibly in class then we might also be better at using them at home in our free time. Right now, we're just trying to use our devices all the time, but if we got used to using them at set times and in the right way we would be more rational using them.

The students also drew up some guidelines, which we discussed:

1) Teachers and students together must set the norms for device usage and ensure their consistent adoption.
2) Technology can be successfully employed in the classroom if the task segment period is short--a single activity longer than 20-30 minutes can deteriorate into surfing, gaming etc. I believe this time limit is as true for college students as it is for middle schoolers.
3) Course material requires both non-technological as well as tech presentations.
4) Teachers must work to promote gender integration with their technology usage.

Very impressed with the students' arguments for developing habits of excellence with their devices, I nevertheless worry about the power of Akrasia. Electronic devices are tempting. Especially if one uses one all them time to fill any pause: Waiting for teachers to return one's work, standing in line in the cafeteria or at grocery store, or anywhere.

In the end, our social contract for rules of usage in the classroom worked often, but imperfectly. Most importantly for me, however, was this discussion itself. It seems to me that if the teacher can find some collectively positive method of maintaining the classroom social contract, monitoring technology usage while using the Internet and student devices to disseminate new materials and expand discussion, class time will become both more enjoyable and valuable.