I’ve talked about this in the past. Both the positive impact of technology on learning and the ability of tech to create distracted students who have difficulty thinking deeply.

I admit I’m still torn. I get it from both sides – many of my colleagues are strong supporters of tech in the classroom, of back channels, of hashtags during instruction.  And I would probably fall on that side of the argument. I do multiple tech integration workshops every semester. I’m planning a Chromebook / GAFE mini-conference. I worked with a group of folks this morning learning how to best use the Adobe Voice iPad app. I’m writing a blog post on a site titled History Tech for heaven’s sake.

But I’m running into more and more classroom teachers who are starting to be wary of the tech. There has been some interesting research about how the misuse of technology can screw with deep thinking skills and how the use of social media can be addictive. And a recent article by Clay Shirkey lays out a pretty persuasive argument for a tech naked learning environment.

So I’m torn.

Shirkey, who is an Associate Arts Professor at the Interactive Telecommunications Program, an Associate Professor in the Journalism Department, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, who was the Edward R. Murrow Visiting Lecturer at Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy and has multiple TED talks, is not just some old fuddy-duddy Luddite, computer hater.

We’ve known for some time that multi-tasking is bad for the quality of cognitive work, and is especially punishing of the kind of cognitive work we ask of college students. And in Why Clay Shirky Banned Laptops, Tablets and Phones from His Classroom, he argues for classrooms free of tech distractions and why he “finally switched from ‘allowed unless by request’ to ‘banned unless required.'”

What’s the problem with multi-tasking?

This effect takes place over more than one time frame — even when multi-tasking doesn’t significantly degrade immediate performance, it can have negative long-term effects on “declarative memory,” the kind of focused recall that lets people characterize and use what they learned from earlier studying. (Multi-tasking thus makes the famous “learned it the day before the test, forgot it the day after” effect even more pernicious.)

People often start multi-tasking because they believe it will help them get more done. Those gains never materialize; instead, efficiency is degraded. However, it provides emotional gratification as a side-effect. (Multi-tasking moves the pleasure of procrastination inside the period of work.) This side-effect is enough to keep people committed to multi-tasking despite worsening the very thing they set out to improve.

And this research is not necessarily about what happens when we use tech. It’s when we try to multitask in general. Pile on the interwebs with its crazy social media and it gets worse.

The form and content of a Facebook update may be almost irresistible, but when combined with a visual alert in your immediate peripheral vision, it is — really, actually, biologically — impossible to resist. Our visual and emotional systems are faster and more powerful than our intellect; we are given to automatic responses when either system receives stimulus, much less both. Asking a student to stay focused while she has alerts on is like asking a chess player to concentrate while rapping their knuckles with a ruler at unpredictable intervals.

So we’ve got research that suggests that the use of certain kinds of tech during instruction makes it harder to learn, not easier. And even if a student tries to avoid the tech and the multitasking, more research documents the impact of “second-hand tech smoke.”

Shirkey’s response? Help students focus by banning tech in the classroom.

This is, for me, the biggest change — not a switch in rules, but a switch in how I see my role. Professors are at least as bad at estimating how interesting we are as the students are at estimating their ability to focus. Against oppositional models of teaching and learning, both negative — “Concentrate, or lose out!” — and positive — “Let me attract your attention!” — I’m coming to see student focus as a collaborative process. It’s me and them working to create a classroom where the students who want to focus have the best shot at it, in a world increasingly hostile to that goal.

Some of the students will still opt out, of course, which remains their prerogative and rightly so, but if I want to help the ones who do want to pay attention, I’ve decided it’s time to admit that I’ve brought whiteboard markers to a gun fight and act accordingly.

Our response?

Like I said. I’m torn. I’ve seen the engagement of students and products by students when using technology tools. I’ve see the distractions caused by social media. And the research is hard to ignore.

I like Shirkey’s switch from “allowed unless by request” to “banned unless required.” And I think many K-12 teachers have similar formal or informal instructions for their students. But we need to be intentional about the use of tech tools and software in our classrooms and be aware of both the positive and negative impact of that use on our students. I especially like his call for a collaborative process of creating a focused learning enivornment. Shirkey’s article is a good read – you need to go over and dig through it.

Then come back here and share your thoughts. What is the balance between too much and too little?