Interview: Sherry Turkle on Technology in the College Classroom

by Jeffrey Young

Sherry Turkle Says There’s a Wrong Way to Flip a Classroom.

Sherry Turkle has gone from gracing the cover of Wired magazine for her boosterish views of technology, to a leading tech skeptic, worried about how our smartphones and always-on culture are short-circuiting human communication.

In her most recent book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, she argues that in our rush for the thrill of texts and tweets, we’re forgetting how to relate to each other in person. Turkle, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology studying the impact of technology on society, says the problem is so big and important that she compares it to climate change. “We feel safe in our homes day to day and we usually aren’t thinking about 30 years from now. And in the case of both climate change and conversation, there is the temptation to think that an exception means the problem isn’t real or will go away.”

Her book, available in paperback this month, includes a chapter on how this tech-life imbalance has ripple effects through education. I chatted with Turkle this week for more on her views about digital culture’s role in teaching and learning.

Q: Reclaiming Conversation, dedicates a whole chapter to education and how technology has impacted education, especially college teaching. I noticed you don’t just talk about classrooms that are experimenting with the latest gadgets, but you seem to be arguing that just the presence of laptops and smartphones and email seem to be changing the way professors and students interact.

Turkle: Yes. My students don’t want to come to office hours anymore. They would prefer to send me an email and have me send them an email back because they have a fantasy that they can send me a perfect email. They can present themselves as perfect and ask me their exact question, and that I will send them their exact perfect answer back. This does a few things. I think it reveals the way in which we try to turn conversations into transactions in digital culture — which is one of the larger themes of my work in Reclaiming Conversation. Whether it’s in education or in business or in love, we’re too often trying to turn conversations into connections or into transactions.

I try to explain to my students that no one who has ever been lit up by learning had that happen because they sent out a perfect email and they got a perfect email back. And I think that faculty need to remember this in order to resist the temptation to kind of take the easy way out and just use email with students for its convenience. It’s much more likely that students will get lit up by learning if they come in for office hours and they present a very imperfect argument and the teacher says, the mentor says, that’s not really right. That’s not really where it should be, but come back again. Come back here again. I’ll be here for you again.

For me the keywords are “here again” which shows presence, continuity, the offering of a relationship. And it’s that relationship that really matters. What I’m arguing in the book is that it’s not the presence of a laptop in a class that needs to be looked at and needs to be perhaps critiqued, but really the kind of digital culture that we’re creating where we’re not valuing conversation enough and not valuing relationships enough, and we tend to look at each other as apps in a more transactional way.

Q.  The situation you’re describing is really the challenge of digital culture, and the broader pool of water we’re all swimming in together. What else can a professor do to push back against what really are student expectations these days?

Turkle:  A professor needs to explain to students that what I’m here to do is be in a relationship with you and to talk to you. So many faculty are kind of going in the opposite direction or saying we’re putting things online and you can take the course online. Or we’ll have teaching fellow sessions that are done online. I like to say I’m not anti-technology, not at all, but I’m pro conversation and conversation has a tremendous role to play in education, and it really needs to be respected.

Q.  There’s a lot of talk these days about flipped classrooms and trying to make class times more interactive than the standard lecture. Isn’t that a way to bring conversation into the classroom?

Turkle:  It depends. In the ideal [situation], the flipped classroom brings conversation into the classroom because the students are learning. In a flipped classroom the idea is the students are learning the technical material at home and then the classroom time is designed to be about discussion of the material and questions about the material. But you have to be very careful because in so many of the flipped classrooms that I visited, when the presentation of the material is something that’s taken place at home, teachers sometimes use the in-class time almost as a sort of homework, recitation session and it becomes very dead. It becomes a kind of time to go over the facts and make sure everybody’s done the homework.

One of the things that I’ve noticed as I’ve studied this is that we haven’t given enough respect to the amount of genuine interactivity and creativity and conversation that we have in classrooms that use traditional technology like lectures. Again, I’m not against a flipped classroom, and when it’s done well it’s great, but I think that part of the narrative of a flipped classroom is that it’s somehow responding to a crisis of a deadened classroom instead of an enlivened classroom and that isn’t necessarily true.

What my research shows and as do so many other people’s research is that an open laptop or an open iPad opens up a kind of cone of silence and attentional disarray around itself because students’ attention has sort of been taken by the open device.

Q.  A kind of zone of distraction?

Turkle:   That’s a good way to put it. It’s usually called a cone of silence or a cone of distraction. One of my overarching points is that we’re vulnerable. We’re vulnerable to where an open device takes us. Even with the best intentions, it takes us away from where we are. It puts us into a state of attentional disarray.

Q.  It seems like your argument is these things could get worked out—that we could develop new cultural norms to counteract these potential downsides. How optimistic are you that that could be done in an education setting?

Turkle:   I’m very optimistic because I think people are at a tipping point. I think people realize that this is not going well—and all the forces are lined up in the wrong direction. It’s like all of the technology is designed to make us constantly diverted because it’s in the interest of anyone who makes an app to have you constantly be looking at your phone. But it’s not good for your relationships, it’s not good for your concentration, it’s not good for your productivity—and people are starting to realize this.

We’re not using the technology really the way we should. And I think that education is a tough case because so much has been pitched and so much has been sold. Schools have been told that this is the future, and parents are told that this is the future. Actually, it’s not clear, it’s not clear how much of this is the future and how much some of this is just our feeling, oh my god, it’s new, we’ve got to do it, we’ve got to get with the program.

Q.  The issue of course is with college costs being what they are, and so many jobs requiring college degrees. It gets back to the question of whether technology should play some role in increasing college access?

Turkle:   Well I’m sure technology’s going to play an enormous role. There’s going to be all kinds of online courses. My position again is not anti-technology, it’s pro conversation, so I’m saying that when you integrate a technology, when you suggest a technology, when you argue for why it’s important, just be very clear about why you’re doing it—and what’s being lost.

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