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5 Ways That Technology Can Undermine Your Higher Education

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

No one is a bigger advocate for technology than yours truly. I live a tech-centered life. I teach about technology, write about technology, communicate through technology, and train my children to use technology. While digital technology is often lauded as the greatest invention of all time for its ability to make our lives better, more connected, and more convenient, there is also a dark side to it that should be of concern to college students in particular. Increasing reports of students with Internet, social media, and technology addictions are troubling and may be hurting them, higher education in general, and their chances of getting jobs after graduation.

This post is in no way a diatribe against technology and its use by students. In pieces such as "Taking Advantage of ‘Disruptive Technology’ in the Classroom" and "Using Ed-Tech Instead of Adderall to Survive in College," I have argued that strong technology use by college students can be extremely beneficial to their academic and personal success. But, as with all things, there needs to be a balance between the right amount of use, and addictive tendencies that can be detrimental. The first step in overcoming any addiction, or avoiding a problem, is knowing that it exists and what it. To that end, here are the five ways in which technology can undermine an individual’s higher education and what to do about it.

1. Failing to Live in the Present
In his 2013 book, Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, Douglas Rushkoff makes the observation that social media has disconnected people from the here and now present by providing them with a window through which to look longingly at the "there, and now" of what is happening in the world just removed from their current proximal zone.

In one of Rushkoff’s examples, he examines a party goer who is unable to engage with others at the party she is at because she is constantly checking social media for the "best" party, and she leaves the moment something seems better. The same could be true of the social media-connected student sitting in a college classroom who is constantly checking in on the situation beyond the walls of their current location. Perhaps they are finding a party for later, or maybe checking in on a sick family member. Regardless of the reason, the fact remains that any student not fully present in their classes is missing out on the full value of their education.

Solution1: Disconnect During Classes and Pre-determined Study Hours
The simple fix here is self-discipline. This is a skill that will provide benefits throughout a lifetime of distractions and competing interests. In this case simply turning off the competing devices during class time will solve the problem almost entirely. As an enhancement, creating a no social media schedule for some defined other times in your daily life will provide freedom from distraction to do homework, read, or develop other skills that will be beneficial in the long run, such as computer programming for example.

Solution 2: Approach Your Professors about Using Social Media in the Classroom
The second proposed solution to the social media disconnect is more complex and actually involves connecting more, though with a different focus. Portable devices and social media have the potential to enhance education in a number of ways from bringing outside experts into the classroom, to providing opportunities for faculty to monitor student understanding. If it is too difficult to completely disconnect from your devices during class time, consider approaching your professors about ways in which technology can enhance the classroom experience. The post mentioned above, "Taking Advantage of ‘Disruptive Technology’ in the Classroom," presents several ways in which portable devices can be successfully incorporated into the higher education classroom.

2. Engaging in Portable Procrastination
All human beings procrastinate to some extent. Personally, I think that I work better with a little bit of pressure to perform.  Portable electronic devices are the world champions of procrastination inspiration. Think about it, that four by six inch rectangle has the potential to do almost anything you can imagine. Want to make a movie, play a game, or about chat with someone in Siberia or on the International Space Station? Your portable device can do all of that and much more. Additionally, these devices make these and many more opportunities to procrastinate available literally anywhere you may be and at any time- standing in line at a grocery store, at the beach, or even while sitting at your desk working. This omnipresent and omnipotent distraction machine can literally consume every free moment in your day as well as many that are not free. If your device is preventing you from focusing on tasks that need to be done, there is a major problem with your higher education.

Solution1: Same as 1 above – disconnect!

Solution 2: Positive Procrastination
For those who can’t go cold turkey, try refocusing the use of your device to make your "procrastination" a positive, academically enriching experience. Step 1: remove some or all of the worst distractors from your device. This should definitely include games and may include social media apps. Step 2: install some learning and productivity apps that will push you to be productive in your procrastination. A few suggestions include iDocs or GDrive, two apps that will allow you to access and edit documents stored in Google Drive. For other times when you need a quick break, consider installing the Khan Academy, TED, iTunesU, or PBS apps that will allow you to access educationally relevant content wherever you may roam. In this way you will be filling your procrastination time with either actual work or intellect-building content. You won’t miss playing games every spare second and you might find that having only smart content on your device helps you stay focused on more immediate and important tasks.

3. Engaging in Quick Fix Researching
Having all of the information in the history of the world at your fingertips is certainly a good thing, but this overabundance of facts and figures can also be a debilitating handicap.  If, every time a question or problem presents itself, you quickly look up someone else’s answer on the Internet, you are depriving yourself of opportunities to develop your own critical thinking skills. One of the greatest strengths that any college graduate can have in a fast-paced, shifting, hyper-connected global economy is the ability to think critically, and quickly develop innovative solutions to problems. Forcing yourself to slow down and think about questions and problems will ultimately make you a more capable critical thinker when you need to be.

Solution: Slow Down, Take a Breath, and Let Your Brain do the Walking
Give yourself a chance to think about the question being asked of you. Don’t immediately assume that you don’t know the answer or have a viable solution. Your brain is an amazing device in and of itself that has not only catalogued everything you have ever seen or experienced, but also has processing power orders of magnitude greater than your cell phone or tablet. Given a little conscious effort, that computer between your ears can potentially come up with things that no-one on the Web has ever thought of, let alone shared freely online.

4. Using Reading Crutches
As a former video producer, I fully understand the appeal of the visual medium for conveying information and entertaining simultaneously. But so much more subtlety can be conveyed in writing, that every opportunity should be made to read what is written. Reading a book, rather than watching the movie or reading the plot summary, engages parts of your brain that not only make you a better thinker, but that can also impart on you memories of experiences you are reading about that are analogous to having had the experiences yourself. That’s right; reading about something activates the same parts of your brain as having actually had the experience yourself. This can increase your empathy toward others, your understanding of the broader functioning of the world, and your imaginative potential. All of these skills will help you become the kind of connected innovator who can leverage a vast network of experiences – real and read- to develop new solutions to any problems.

Solution: Turn Your Device into an eReader!
This is one more way in which your portable procrastination device can be turned into a portable academic enhancement device. Consider installing apps like iBooks, Ebook, or oodles that allow you to download free texts. Start your virtual library with some of the classics, which almost without exception, are in the public domain and can be downloaded for free. If you want some more academic content, consider visiting bookboon.com or a similar site that offers free access to thousands of educational texts.

5. Ignoring the Full Potential of Your Device
The final way that technology can undermine your educational goals is really for you to let it. You have the power of a supercomputer connected to all the world’s collected knowledge in the palm of your hand, and you are using it to see who is dating whom, or which celebrity is punching paparazzi. That is an incredible waste of the potential of the device and the person holding it.

Solution: Stock Up on Learning
As mentioned above, filling your device with educational content, whether podcasts, astronomy apps, eBooks, or some brain training games is one way of realizing your and its potential rather than allowing portable technology to become a distracting drain on your time and a detriment to your education. This is not to say that it can’t also be used for fun and socializing, that is also part of the beauty of out hyper-connected world. But be sure to set clear boundaries for yourself and your device. Know that there is a time to play and a time to socialize, but that there are also times when your only focus should be on learning.

Technological distraction is particularly detrimental for those in college whose sole purpose in life and only reason for being at a university at all, is to learn and expand their minds. That means fully investing in the educational opportunity in front of you with a single-minded focus and purpose that will make sure that you are squeezing all of the value possible from an education that you are paying for and likely will be paying for in the decades to come. Isn’t it worth a little delay in your social life to make sure that you are maximizing the return on an investment that is intended to support you for the rest of your life?

In an ironic twist, I now invite you to share your thoughts on this post via social media on Twitter or Google+, but that’s the world we live in, just don’t do it during class please!