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The provost of Harrisburg University, Eric Darr, puzzles me. He studied under one of the forefathers of artificial intelligence, Herbert Simon. He became the provost at Harrisburg in 2007 after a successful run in corporate America, first with Ernst & Young’s knowledge management consulting services, then with a software company called Knowledge Planet.

He’s no slouch as an educator, either. His biography states:

Dr. Darr developed and taught Doctoral and MBA courses in organizational learning, organizational change, organization design, process reengineering, business strategy and technology management. Further, he developed and taught executive education courses in measuring intellectual capital, corporate renewal, managing information technology resources, improving product development and creating organizational memory.

Yet, seeing his 16-year-old daughter multitasking through Facebook, iTunes, IM, and so forth one night, he became inspired to take his entire university through a needless experiment — blacking out social networking sites for a while to see “what would happen if all that wasn’t there.”

As a parent, I immediately wondered whether Darr also confronted his 16-year-old daughter and stripped her of her social networking accoutrements — or whether she remains blithely multitasking while her father’s university suffers the brunt of misplaced discipline.

Regardless, Darr’s experiment is short-lived and poorly designed. It isn’t really an experiment; it’s more like a stunt. There is no control group, no measurement instrument, and no hypothesis. In most of the related media coverage, after using the word “experiment,” the spokespeople for Harrisburg University then say something like, “It’s an opportunity to reflect.”

Also, the lockdown is technologically porous. Only students accessing the Internet through the university’s wireless or wired systems are affected. Those using cellular to IM or access social media via a smartphone are unaffected. Also, these students are no dummies, as the Guardian reported:

Several of the college’s computer geeks have rerouted internet access through Canada or Norway or used proxy websites to break through the firewall. Some students have nipped to the nearby Hilton hotel to use its wireless access.

Harrisburg University is supposedly a technological hub, making this “experiment” a bit more bizarre when added to Darr’s background and credentials. And the larger question is, What’s the point?

If distraction were the issue, then why not remove televisions from dorm rooms, the student union, or other venues? If classroom behavior were the issue, why not remove laptops altogether and revert to pencil and paper?

Because, you know, you could be messing around writing a blog post in Word on a laptop, or making a PowerPoint. Come to think of it, you could be doodling or writing notes with pencil and paper. Even without tools, you can just space out.

Students interviewed in the media had various reactions. Some felt the ban made some sense, and noted they paid more attention to lectures without the IMs popping up. But others noted that IMs were sometimes part of bonding during a class (“gawd, this is boring”) or making plans later (“Starbucks or Subway?”).

The issue seems deeper than social media technology. If classrooms are going to adapt, they might try integrating new and widely adopted communication technologies rather than fighting them. Here’s how it might work:

  • Get every student’s IM identity, and IM them with little factoids, questions, or prompts during a class
  • Require students to subscribe to the professor’s Twitter feed, and send reading links as appropriate
  • Create a Facebook group for a particular class, and require members to join it, then host discussions or introduce topics through that channel

The success of iTunes U. — 300 million downloads of lectures in audio and video from more than 800 universities — shows that students can and will use these tools for educational ends. What Harrisburg University will learn by making them dead ends isn’t clear, or even postulated.

This debate between isolated information absorption and multi-tasking will continue to be with us. But instead of trying to black out new communication technologies just because a world without them is more familiar to administrators like Darr, perhaps the better approach would be to appropriate these new tools for learning, and meet students where they truly are.

In his new book “I Live in the Future & Here’s How It Works,” Nick Bilton writes:

Kids may seem distracted, but they will play video games for an average of three hours a day — which sounds like long-form content to me. If they don’t read a whole book in two days or stay with a television show, it isn’t because they can’t concentrate. It’s because we haven’t adapted the storytelling to fit their changing interests. . . . If we want them to consume our stories, we’ll have to harness a range of technologies to tell them well. If we don’t, there are plenty of other options available for them to consume — or, more likely, they will create their next meal without us.

Educating in a world of abundance might tempt a provost to implement artificial scarcity, but the better lesson might be to learn how to teach in a world of abundance. That’s a different lesson Eric Darr could have gleaned from watching his 16-year-old daughter work. She is in a slightly different world than Darr.

Maybe instead of depriving students of what have become natural tools for collaboration, socialization, stimulation, and interaction, a better option would have been to shift teaching techniques to reflect today’s students.

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


6 Thoughts on "The Wrong Approach: Harrisburg University Bans Social Networking to “See What Happens”"

Would you have been similarly offended if the provost had asked students to turn off their cel phones for one hour and to take a walk in the woods to appreciate the fall colors as the leaves change?

I didn’t get the feeling he was a luddite, asking students to abandon technology. I think he was interested in letting the students have a brief glimpse at how dependent they are on those technologies. On a recent trip to the UK, I turned off data access on my iPhone (didn’t want to pay those outrageous rates) and realized how huge an impact it’s had on the way I travel. It was actually kind of fun challenging my brain to find ways to route around not having immediate access to information, having to read a map, talk to locals, things like that.

Breaking up the status quo of one’s life (at least for a little while) can be a rewarding experience.

The “experiment” has no scientific merit. Dr. Darr already admitted in the media that the stunt was to get PR for a conference being held at HU about social media.

There is free Wi-Fi all over downtown Harrisburg and HU is a non-residential campus.

Wow that really was a bad idea. Social media is more than just students getting distracted these days. Whether it’s in an undergrad class or an executive education course social media can have a positive influence, as mentioned above. Not only that, but as a business owner I have a page and a campaign targeted towards certain markets, like college kids and the university shutting down social networks affects my business as well. I’m in the process of getting a certificate in global marketing from Thunderbird and this decision was definitely the wrong approach for not only the students, but it might have upset local businesses that have Twitter accounts and ads directed towards the students at Harrisburg.

How much influence should the marketing plans and sales desires of local merchants have on a provost’s educational decisions?

Okay maybe not that much, but still the business surrounding a college are affected by the actions of that college because the students and staff may be the largest market the businesses reach. For instance if a college hosts a bowl game and cancels it then the businesses around it are directly affected, and if those businesses had put marketing hours into a campaign for the bowl game they would take a hit. There should be an influence because the local merchants help support the surrounding college, more so during a poor economy. Without the surrounding businesses making it a college atmosphere there would be no college.

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