• Just Visiting

    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.


EdTech I Will Never Use in the Classroom

Surveillance isn't the answer.

August 18, 2016



I received a message to my school email with a subject line asking about my cell phone policy. I thought maybe this person had read one of my posts about my struggles over finding a policy that works with my particular pedagogical values.

But instead, I was being pitched an app called Flipd that allows the user to lock themselves out of their phones for a specific period of time.

I was intrigued. At the start of the semester, I usually recommend students check out some kind of blocking/monitoring app as a way to get a handle on their use of the internet, particularly social media.

I personally use an app called “Self Control” which allows for either a “blacklist” (don’t let me see these sites) or a “whitelist” (only let me see these sites), attached to a timer that goes in quarter-hour increments form 15 minutes up to a full day.

When grading I allow access only to my course management system to enter grades or download essays.

When writing fiction, I shut down the internet entirely. For crafting a blog post, it’s trickier because I often need to do research, so I block the habitual time sucks, espn.com, Twitter, and my favorite of the political season, Talking Points Memo.

Sometimes when I’m working I don’t turn the app on, giving myself permission to be distracted, and dealing with the consequences of those distractions. Whether or not I engage the app is always my choice.

This is what I urge for my students, to make their engagement with the internet and social media an active, conscious choice, rather than reflexive and unthinking. If I’m watching television or reading and I want to concentrate on that activity, I now try to put my phone out of easy reach to short-circuit those fleeting impulses to check it.

But Flipd is contacting me because they offer something else. For no cost to me, I can set up an interface where Flipd will report on which of my students are locking themselves out of their phones during my class, and which are not. This is supposed to help me better understand which students are “engaged” with the course.

Importantly, this is not free to the students, who will pay $2.99 per year for Flipd. Of course, it’s the easiest thing in the world for an instructor to require Flipd as part of their course, isn’t it? For less than a Starbucks, I can help my students keep on task and improve their grades.

There is copious research indicating that use of technology (particularly phones) in class results in lower grades. Wouldn’t I be doing my students a favor if I incorporate Flipd into my classroom?

You will not hear me deny the potential of technology to “distract” students in or out of class. I see it every period. I see it on the streets. I experience it when I am in the student role. Perhaps we should be tracking this behavior.

But why stop at the classroom? Why not require Flipd reports for the entire day? When an assignment is late or substandard, I can reference their Flipd metrics, noting how much time was spent on Snapchat or Netflix or Pokémon Go.

And why reserve this exclusively for students? The most distracted group I’ve ever seen is faculty in a department meeting. Should department chairs require professors to engage Flipd and include their scores on tenure and promotion reports?

Maybe institutions can establish a new division to manage all this data. Let’s start advertising for the Director of Distraction Management position today. They’ll need an additional staff of at least three to handle all those spreadsheets.

Or, rather than doing all of this, we can grant our students the agency they need and deserve, which includes the freedom to screw themselves over by not paying attention in class.[1]

Personally, I refuse to embrace surveillance as a tool that fosters student learning.

We wouldn’t accept it for ourselves, so we shouldn’t impose it on students.

Yes, technology is a distraction. Right before I typed this sentence I went to espn.com to check out the latest on #LochteGate.[2] It distracted me from my train of thought and a final kicker sentence that really nailed this thing has slipped from my grasp.

It was so good, but it’s gone forever.

Such is the cost of making a bad choice. Sometimes bad choices by students result in lower grades.

To me, that sounds like learning, which is what we’re all here for, right?[3]

[1] Or, as was the case with me, not attending class at all.

[2] Holy crap! Amirite?

[3] Note: The original idea was a better kicker, but I just can’t remember it for the life of me.


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