3 Student Experiments: Multitasking & Technology Use

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Rowland Natalie.pngNatalie Rowland teaches freshman composition at Florida Atlantic University and is an MFA candidate in the Creative Writing, Fiction program. A former writer, editor, and public relations supervisor in Chicago, she holds BA degrees in Communications and Comparative Literature (English Literature and French Literature) from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

The multitasking and tech-centric essays in Emerging are a natural starting point for freshman composition. In their day-to-day, students regularly encounter technology and are shaped by their choices to connect or disconnect with it. Whether they’re typing up a paper, listening to Spotify, or winning a self-control battle by not texting in class, they are up close and personal with the concepts presented in Richard Restak’s “Attention Deficit: The Brain Syndrome of Our Era” (p. 411) and Alexandra Samuel’s “‘Plug In Better: A Manifesto” (ePages).

Yet many don’t realize it.

Be it the format, the nature of coursework, or the reading level, early undergraduates (and first-semester students in particular) may not feel qualified to engage with Restak and Samuel in these discussions. They can view class reading as an “other” text from the experts, rather than something to which they can, and should, relate.

To get students wrestling with concepts and making connections between text and “real world”, the following “experiments” push readers to apply the reading to themselves. By nature, they also inhibit summary and jump-start critical thinking by encouraging students to engage with the concepts:

  1. Technology Fast – For 24 hours, students commit to avoiding all forms of technology and writing about their experiences with old-fashioned pen and paper. Each time they catch themselves going to use technology, they should evaluate what they were about to do and whether or not it would have been beneficial, as well as a strategy for how to manage technology use in that particular area (as Samuel argues in “‘Plug In Better’”). Are they succeeding or falling short in their technology use? Can technology be managed? How?
  2. Technology Fest – Counter to the first experiment, students will take on the task of writing a one-page reading response to Restak (particularly his discussion in “How Many Ways Can Our Attention Be Divided?” (p. 412)) while attempting to multitask with at least three other activities. For example, a student might watch a TV show, listen to music, and Skype a friend, all while writing the response. Students must set a timer when they begin and record the total amount of time required to write their response papers. In-class discussion is a great follow-up for this: Were they successful? Who took the longest? Who was most efficient? Why do they think so? Did Restak’s arguments hold?
  3. News Assessment – Students identify and summarize a tech-related news article and apply concepts of from the readings. For example, a student might analyze Facebook’s recent announcement that more Americans are coming out on Facebook—how does this play into Restak’s section, “No Time to Listen”? Are people listening? Is Facebook a worthy or appropriate place for gender and sexuality discussion? Why or why not?

For each experiment, students should be writing: they might analyze their experience in a written response; debate a particular topic, with one person writing one paragraph at a time, with a partner in class; or submit a mapped-out page of written notes as an outline for their next essay. The goal is to get them writing and analyzing; and, at the end of the day, beginning to recognize the importance of their valuable role as a writer and contributor in these discussions.

Other related readings from Emerging:

  • Marshall Poe, “The Hive”
  • Thomas L. Friedman, “The Dell Theory of Conflict Prevention”
  • Bill Wasik, “My Crowd Experiment: The Mob Project”

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About the Author
Barclay Barrios is an Associate Professor of English and Director of Writing Programs at Florida Atlantic University, where he teaches freshman composition and graduate courses in composition methodology and theory, rhetorics of the world wide web, and composing digital identities. He was Director of Instructional Technology at Rutgers University and currently serves on the board of Pedagogy. Barrios is a frequent presenter at professional conferences, and the author of Emerging.