Powering Up and Down

When I wake up in the morning, the first thing I usually do – after shutting off my blaring alarm – is check my phone. Throughout the day, I continue to glance at it periodically, excited by every buzz or beep it emits. I am not alone in this: all around me, my peers are fixated upon their various digital devices, and screens are everywhere.

Considering the ubiquity of technology, there is no denying that we live in a truly digital era. We must both truly understand and remain wary of the uses of technology, especially within the context of the classroom.

As Tyler Lian ’16 wrote in his article “Closing the Curricular Gap,” published in the October 3, 2013 issue of The Phillipian, “We need to have a better understanding of how these technologies work, and we need to be able to manipulate their functions to our advantage. Computer science must be promoted in schools and beyond.” Lian’s suggestion to work towards incorporating computer science into Andover’s diploma requirements is certainly prudent. Andover’s academic curriculum needs to reflect the world’s growing digitization by including computer science.

In technology, there is great educational potential that has remained mostly latent up to this point. From helping to visualize complex three-dimensional structures in math courses to exploring archaeological sites through virtual tours in history classes, there are countless ways in which digital devices can successfully complement conventional educational tools.

But as we stand on the brink of unlocking the potential of digital advancement, we must also remain wary of the uses of technology, especially within the context of the classroom. At times, the use of digital devices can be detrimental rather than beneficial.

Personally, when I use my computer in class to take notes or to access texts, I often find myself distracted by emails or Facebook. I am not alone in experiencing these distractions. In a study at an American institution, researchers found that students who had access to laptops connected to the Internet during lectures performed substantially worse on tests measuring retention, according to an August 27, 2010 article in “The Telegraph.” Thus, while innovative and creative uses of technology in school-related settings can be advantageous to the learning process, the overuse of devices can actually undermine students’ learning.

More generally, the constant presence of technology in our personal lives also carries risks. The constant stream of information and notifications has literally begun to rewire our brains, Nora Volkow, Director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse, said in a June 6, 2010 article in “The New York Times.” We feel this shift when we experience a burst of excitement at feeling our cell phones vibrate or hearing the sound of an incoming email coming from our computers. These reactions have a chemical basis, as our brains emit a squirt of dopamine in response to these stimulations, according to the same article. The strength of this response can even become chemically addicting, meaning our brains become literally reliant on a constant feed of digital stimuli.

In addition, in a study referenced by the “Times” article, researchers at the University of California, Irvine, discovered that distraction because of interruption from email led to significantly higher levels of stress for people working. Because of these negative effects, it is important that we focus on limiting the usage of digital devices in our personal lives — a task that is, unfortunately, often easier said than done.

The best way to avoid the detrimental effects of technology seems to be to try to reserve time consistently to power down our devices and focus instead on the present. For example, Head of School John Palfrey organized a “device-free” session last term during which he invited students to walk down to Starbucks with him and his dog. This event provided a relaxing break from work, but, more importantly, it provided an opportunity to distance myself from my computer or phone — with rewarding results. I was able to have engaging, interesting conversations with both students, including some I did not know very well before, and Mr. Palfrey himself. It was a valuable lesson in the importance of sometimes putting away our devices and interacting with each other in a genuine way. We need more moments of calm and relief from the digital whirlwind just as much as we need an enhanced understanding of the technology itself. So, as we collectively move towards a digital future, it is necessary that we understand both how to use and how to limit technology.