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Calm in the Digital Storm

Authored By: 
Michelle Koza, English Teacher

Popular wisdom says this generation of students is digitally native, and that they have facility with digital technology that people even of my generation (I’m just on the upper edge of millenial) don’t have. Indeed, in my household we had a family computer all through my years in high school. Cell phones were still relatively novel, and the iPhone was not even a twinkle in Steve Jobs’ eye. This difference in perspective led to my over-enthusiasm for introducing digital technology in the classroom.

Last year, I ran headlong into digital without really knowing how my students would respond. I was excited by the grand experiment as well as my own newly-developed skills, and assumed that my students would be right there with me.

Children need to learn how to do things, and it doesn’t matter whether they are native to the skill or not. Kids are impulsive and easily distracted. Their brains aren’t fully grown yet, including that prefrontal cortex which governs executive functioning. You know, the part that says: “I’d love to do this right now, but I understand that the effect won’t be so nice, so I’ll restrain myself.” The iPad, a magical machine that is a window into everything, can be too tempting during a classroom lecture. And, it turns out, humans love to manipulate things. The digital world takes some of that away.

I have written before about the importance of taking notes by hand, and the cognitive benefits it imparts to students, effectively creating a more efficient means of absorbing information. Last year I asked my students to use a stylus and take hand-written notes on their tablets using Notability (an app that I still think is a wonderful tool, and I still use for my reading assignments). Students were too tempted to type, and handwriting on the tablet is not as fast or efficient and using old-fashioned pen and paper. Furthermore, using their iPads as book and notebook made moving between their notes and their text a logistical challenge. The experiment failed. As a result, this year I am requiring my student to have notebooks.

Becoming proficient in digital technology does not have to mean increased screen time. In fact, students seem to get lost in their black mirrors. They are easily distracted by the infinite possibilities unleashed by these remarkable devices, and must be shown how to use the technology as an effective tool to achieve their ends, as opposed to it being an end in itself. Now, their iPads are their books; students can have their text up and take notes at the same time. No more toggling during class. They can mark the text as I guide them through it and take notes simultaneously. As teachers, we should approach the digital world with caution. I thought I had, but the evidence showed otherwise. Our students are bombarded by possibilities of instant gratification all day long from a litany of devices, not just their school-sanctioned ones. The classroom can be a place of calm from the digital storm.