Students, faculty, and administrators at Wyoming Catholic College are voluntarily, collectively, and enthusiastically engaged in an unusual approach to the use of contemporary technology, a Yahoo!News “Born Digital” series article reports in the following terms: “No cell phones allowed: Some colleges ban modern-day gadgets.”
“Also banned…are televisions and access to most websites in dorm rooms,” Ron Recinto writes in his article about the small liberal arts college. “Administrators allow only limited Internet connectivity throughout the campus, so students can do online research.”
It’s a fascinating contrast to the approach taken by another school with strong spiritual roots—Abilene Christian University, in Texas—which was the first university in the United States to provide incoming students with smartphones. It’s also a fascinating response to a problem described by a Wyoming student as “our inability to genuinely communicate at a human-to-human, face-to-face level,” and an interesting approach to the school’s stated “primary educational objective” of offering “a traditional liberal arts education that schools the whole person in all three dimensions—mind, body, and spirit.”
And while I couldn’t help but feel drawn to and impressed by the school’s description of its rigorous intellectual standards and broad-based curriculum embracing “history, imaginative literature, writing, reasoning, oratory, Latin, art history, music, mathematics, natural science, philosophy, theology, spirituality, outdoor leadership, and horsemanship,” I am left wondering whether the approach of agreeing to prohibit the use of cell phones except in extremely well-defined situations really is an effective way to help contemporary learners respond to the problems they believe technology fosters and the challenges technology produces.
The college’s dean of students, for example, explains that the policy helps eliminate the temptation to disengage from face-to-face interactions by answering cell phone calls and text messages as if “people you aren’t with are more important than the people you are with.” He also is quoted as suggesting that “We’re allowing a freedom and a vacation from all that so that students can work on something different: true friendship, true virtue, true study.”
What all of this seems to miss—at least as described in the Yahoo! News article—is a greater, far more dynamic learning opportunity: the chance to develop first-rate 21st-century person-to-person and online communication skills, friendship, virtue, and study by discussing, adopting, and maintaining nuanced forms of positive behavior in our onsite-online world rather than simply agreeing to remove bits and pieces of contemporary technology from an apparently wonderful learning environment.
Helping students develop practices that prepare them for effective engagement in a highly-collaborative, globally-interactive world where tech tools can, if used judiciously, foster incredible levels of creativity, innovation, and collaboration seems far more responsive to contemporary learning needs than simply removing widely-available tech tools from their daily lives. Helping students develop habits that encourage them to control rather than be controlled by their tech tools seems to offer greater long-term benefit to them than having them, during this phase of their formal education, withdraw from what is commonly used in the world they inhabit. And helping students define, develop, and maintain digital literacy to remain competitive and effective in the contemporary workplace seems to be a more productive approach to their intellectual and societal development than setting aside the tools those workplaces and that society expect them to be able to effectively use.
I’m not at all unsympathetic to the challenges the Wyoming Catholic University community is attempting to address. As my own friends, colleagues, and learners know, I’ve traveled similar extremes over the past several years, having gone from having little interest in using laptops, cell phones, and social media to being someone who works face to face and online with learners across the country to help them adopt new technology and social media tools in their professional and personal lives. I’ve gone from holding a strong preference for face-to-face learning to an evidence-based belief that the best of online learning can be every bit as engaging and effective as the best of face-to-face learning. I’ve gone from not having a cell phone to having an admittedly old cell phone—a friend disparagingly refers to it as a “cellosaurus”; a (fairly up to date) laptop; and a tablet that provides me with levels of connectivity and engagement at a deeply personal and professional level I couldn’t have imagined just a few years ago.
What I’ve also developed, with continual experimentation as a trainer-teacher-learner, is a sense of when to set the technology aside so that I don’t miss that human-to-human contact the Wyoming community seems to crave. By consistently paying attention to people rather than technology, I believe I’ve had the richly-rewarding benefits of experiential learning to become even more adept at nurturing the person-to-person connections that make life worth living—on as well as off campus.