No Cellphone? No Internet? So Much Less Stress

James Yang for The Chronicle

May 08, 2011

We all know the standard story about college students, technology, and learning: Many of today's students are online 24/7. They're on Facebook constantly. They're texting, instant-messaging, talking on their cellphones. While doing their homework, they're simultaneously surfing the Web, Skyping with friends, and listening to music.

Every day in our classrooms, we see students texting furtively, or sometimes openly, and using their laptops to watch unrelated YouTube videos or worse. None of this comes as a surprise, because these students are members of the Net Generation. They were "born digital," and with this birthright comes not only great facility but also great love of the new technologies.

That is the standard story, but what if it's wrong?

Indeed, we have reason to believe that today's students (age 18 and up) have significant concerns about the role of the new technologies in their lives. To be sure, most really do appreciate the power and convenience of the tools they use for social networking, entertainment, and learning; and many are serious multitaskers. But at the same time, when asked about those technologies, many appear to be more self-aware, reflective, and articulate about their concerns and confusions than they are generally given credit for being.

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We have come to this conclusion through a process that began roughly five years ago, when we constructed a short questionnaire asking undergraduates in one particular class a series of questions about their online and offline behavior. Some of their answers were noteworthy, and surprising: Well over half expressed concern about the amount of time they spent online, the quality of their interactions, and over all, the quality of life they were experiencing in their "always on" lifestyle.

To find out if this was a one-off experience, we began visiting classrooms at colleges around the country, talking with and informally surveying more than 300 students at six colleges. We met with students from small liberal-arts colleges, large state universities, and secular and religiously affiliated institutions. (That mix included our own two campuses, the University of Washington and Georgetown University, where we also organized focus groups.) We heard the same themes in every setting:

  • Students are aware of, and seemingly frustrated by, the amount of time they spend online. Some talked about spending too much time online, calling it a waste and even an addictive form of behavior. As one student commented: "I don't realize how much time is passing while on my phone and computer. I'm so preoccupied, I'm not paying attention to what else is going on around me."
  • Many students feel pressure from those around them to be continually connected and responsive. They feel this pressure not only from peers but also from parents, faculty, employers, and even the technology companies whose marketing strategies make them feel they must have the most up-to-date gadgets and features. "I don't have a coping mechanism," one student said. "There are so many things: e-mail, high-school e-mail, personal e-mail, texting, news."
  • Students regularly talk about their online contacts as being less "real" than face-to-face interactions. "Talking to all these people, making connections when it wasn't really a personal connection, didn't feel real," one student said.
  • When forced to disconnect for longer stretches of time, some students discover that they enjoy the slower pace of life. Their first reaction might be anxiety or panic—over the loss of cellphone coverage while on vacation, for example. But once they made the adjustment, they were likely to find themselves more relaxed. Said one international student: "When I came to the States, I didn't bring my laptop. ... I have much more time. It's a great feeling."
  • Students hold a range of opinions about the use of personal technologies in the classroom. Some say laptops and cellphones are sources of distraction and shouldn't be permitted; others think that people who use them should sit in the back of the classroom. Still others feel they have the right to turn to Facebook or YouTube if the instructor isn't sufficiently engaging.

Not all students expressed reservations about their use of the technologies. But a clear majority did, and among these there was a range of opinions about what could or should be done. Some felt the problems could be resolved through the proper exercise of willpower. Others thought that the problems were simply features of the new digital world, and that they had to learn to live with them. Most, though, seemed to be reflecting on and wrestling with the complexity of the issues without having reached definitive conclusions. As one student commented: "Sometimes you don't even know what is stressing you, and taking time out to think about it ... is important. Because it is stressful not knowing what is stressing you out."

Clearly, our findings are preliminary; there is a need for further investigation on a larger population of students. Yet this material is sufficiently rich and provocative to suggest an important next step for educators.

We educators have an opportunity—indeed, a responsibility—to talk with our students about this crucial dimension of their, and our, lives. But our experience suggests that students need to be invited into this conversation and thus given permission to express opinions they may tacitly assume are not welcome.

All of us—faculty, administrators, and students—have a great deal to learn from such conversations. The students are experts in full immersion in the new technologies, and can help us understand how this feels. But because they were born in the digital age, they lack the experience we educators have of a slower, more reflective world. Some students are just beginning to realize that their range of experiences is limited. Others may need help in discovering this. One first-year student even suggested that the university shut down the Internet for a few hours each evening, thus giving students time to take a break from their "always connected" lives.

But our main point isn't to suggest specific changes on campus or in the classroom. Nor is it to diminish the significance of the new technologies. It is simply this: Our aim as educators is to nurture vital, engaged learning on our campuses. Collectively, we are investigating how best to engage the new technologies in this endeavor. But our students are already deeply immersed in these technologies, and—as we have been discovering—are eager to engage with us in discussion about the role of technology in their lives. Such conversations themselves constitute a form of engaged learning. Don't we educators have a responsibility to inaugurate such conversations and to pursue the opportunities for learning and innovation that they open up?

David M. Levy is a professor at the University of Washington's Information School. Daryl L. Nardick is senior project consultant for the Center for New Designs in Learning & Scholarship at Georgetown University. Jeanine W. Turner is an associate professor in Georgetown's Communication, Culture & Technology program. Leanne McWatters is a graduate associate at Georgetown's new-designs center.