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A Weapon of Distraction and Numbness: Fighting Computers in Classrooms

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I had never seen anything like it. I'd only left class for a few minutes, but as I was about to turn the corner, something caught my eye. I stared, stalled in my tracks, into the classroom window in front of me. Through the half-drawn shades, I could just make out the History teacher and a few of my friends in the class. It wasn't the people in the room that had given me pause, though; it was the luminous patches of glowing light that lined the desks, almost uniformly.

Computers are killing classrooms.

Without question, online data sharing programs are efficient and both environmentally and financially sustainable. Communication servers like FirstClass keep school communities connected. The notion of "one laptop per student" ushers high schoolers into the same era of globalization that has caused such drastic shifts in self-sovereignty throughout much of the rest of the world.

But there's a caveat to those advances: Technology is neutral, but its uses and users are not. My independent high school -- by its very nature -- is frenzied, adrenalized, and consistently active. We may be advancing technologically, but our engagement and education are in retreat. It's time for teachers and students to begin thinking beyond the laptop's use as a tool, and realize its quickly solidifying potential as a weapon of distraction and numbness.

Cut back to the classroom: The students may, indeed, be looking at a pertinent document on a school webpage, but the problem lies therein -- they are looking, not reading; skimming, not absorbing; hearing, not listening, and certainly not engaging.

A teacher approached me after class a few weeks ago. "Did everyone seem a little bit distant today?" he asked. Yes, we had been distant. Earlier in the year, my classmates and I had been quick to respond to a point that seemed off-color, or to wrestle with the material presented. Now, we're transfixed. Those glowing arcs of MacBooks in my school's classrooms are causing a steep and rushed decline in engagement, counterargument, expression, and even interest.

In another one of my discussion-based classes, the teacher often begins with a provocative question as a jumping-off point for active debate. But when I look around the room, almost every student who isn't responding verbally is faced-down, eyes -- and attentions -- mesmerized by Tetris, QuickMeme.com, and the beckon-call of the Facebook news feed. I, too, find the screen an enticing prospect, and (often unknowingly) dive deep within a sea of articles and Internet phenomena that my AP Government teacher would be quick to label "non-germane."

My evidence is purely anecdotal; I have limited knowledge of statistics or empirical data to support my assertion. But my experiences as a student in classes that range from the standard to AP levels testify to the notion that the digital approach -- categorical in its nature, far-reaching in its effects -- is hindering my education and undermining the dynamic and participatory environment that student and faculty leaders work so hard to build.

It's not that we students have a malicious intent. We don't spend Saturday nights thinking up ways to further distract our ever-distracted psyches. Few of us have a strong-willed desire not to learn. The problem? The modern classroom -- an environment that requires us to be present -- is simply no longer conducive to being present.

The iPhone has taken my school by storm. The BlackBerry still permeates campus. We use them during class -- a shock to neither students nor faculty. In fact, most schools like mine have their fair share of teachers whose phones make all sorts of noises mid-lesson. But the glow of the laptop and the buzz of our phones are denigrating the very basis upon which we learn; they are pulling us closer to the virtual world of profile pictures and pushing us further from the pragmatic and illuminating realms of derivatives, Federalism, Punnett squares, and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

The following is my proposal to begin alleviating the consequences of the transfixing glow. Some will call it radical, I call it practical: Students should stop using their laptops to take notes and revert to the pen and paper. Each student should put his or her shut-off phone on his or her desk before class. Teachers should do the same. Google Docs, Schoology, Evernote, FirstClass, and other digital means of data sharing should be used for reading and submitting; when the primary function of the technology has been accomplished, we should shut our laptop covers and discuss.

I haven't yet been able to follow the above rules -- but I try to. If I did, I would be both a better student and a more engaged member of my school community. Students don't need to be convinced that we're distracted, we just need help becoming less so. These rules shouldn't be imposed from above, but, rather, should be a community-wide exercise in self-control.

I believe firmly that a transcendentalist strategy or an attitude that lures us to return to antiquity would be better left to Thoreau and his kin. But laptops are moving us further from enlightenment. One biblical prophet's vision foretold that, in the messianic age, the lion would lay down with the lamb. I'm no prophet, but in my vision, during class, the smartphone would stay out of the hand.

This post has been updated since its original publication.