Breaking screen addiction

Carlos Gutiérrez

Graduate Business Programs Manager

As a long-time business educator, it’s both distressing and encouraging to look out upon a classroom full of students and realize that there are more screens than people in the room. 

Humberto Aguilera, Ph.D.

Psychology Faculty

The business students in my classes frequently multitask with a smartphone, laptop and tablet; invariably they have Facebook on one, Instagram on the second, and Twitter – or the latest, hottest, must-have app – on the third. (And by the time you’ve figured what that hot new app is, the students have moved on to something else…) 

How can instructors possibly compete for student attention with the mesmerizing screens? Simple answer: you can’t, especially if you like to lecture. I’ve tried every trick in the book against screen addiction, from asking students to deposit their electronic toys on my desk until class is over, through prohibiting the use of all devices during class, to setting up a penalty system if students are caught accessing non-course-related material. 

The problem with this approach is that it creates an adversarial environment which reeks of autocracy and censorship – the exact opposite of why we’re in a learning community to begin with! So, if you can’t win against social media – and lecturing was never the most effective teaching tool to begin with – what’s an instructor to do? 

Well, if you can’t beat ‘em…join ‘em! One technique that I’ve used with great success is the Socratic Method, which basically has me asking the students increasingly complex questions about the course material and topics. This time-tested method is the bedrock of our Western pedagogical tradition, and for such an old trick it works surprisingly well. I guide the classroom discussion by asking probing questions which allow me to see which concepts the students are grasping with ease, and which need more discussion. 

It doesn’t take long before we encounter something unfamiliar, and that’s when the screens kick in! In today’s business world, nobody can know everything, but anyone can know where to find anything. So I tell students that answers like “I don’t know” are no longer valid – get working with the screens and find out! 

Let me give you an example. Take a standard business concept: market capitalization for a publicly traded company. Figuring it out is pretty simple: just multiply the number of outstanding shares by the relevant share price (for example, when the appropriate stock market closed last night). Students can quickly find these two data points by Googling (which leads to a side discussion about the reliability of sources). Finding out Apple’s market cap doesn’t initially tell you that much, except that it’s the world’s most valuable company; but finding out how Apple got to be the world’s most valuable company in the first place leads us to a whole new set of questions. Before you know it, the students are thoroughly engaged and have moved far beyond the simple “what” in their attempt to understand the more complex “why.” 

This approach has allowed me to turn all the screens in my classroom into learning tools that function as conduits to data, information, and eventually understanding. It’s gotten to the point where I tell students on the first day of classes “bring all the screens you have…the more the merrier!” 

And don’t forget your chargers.

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