Danah Boyd thinks so… and she says that’s o.k.!

I’m a graduate student. I’m supposedly a model of diligent scholarship. Yet I check my e-mail and cruise the Web during class, just like, apparently, everyone else.

But is that distraction so bad? Maybe the better question is, Is the distraction we allow ourselves with our laptops and Blackberries worse than the distraction we afforded ourselves twenty years ago with doodlepads and daydreaming? And might Web distractions actually be better?

The realy smart Danah Boyd tells the following story about her experience at the Modernity 2.0 conference:

There were two audiences in attendance – a young cohort of “internet scholars” and an older cohort deeply invested in sociocybernetics. At one point, after a talk, one of the sociocybernetics scholars (actually, the former President of the sociocybernetics organization… I know… I looked him up) began his question by highlight that, unlike most of the audience who seemed more invested in the internet than scholarly conversations, HE had been paying attention. He was sitting next to me. He looked at me as he said this.

…There’s no doubt that I barely understood what the speaker was talking about. But during the talk, I had looked up six different concepts he had introduced (thank you Wikipedia), scanned two of the speakers’ papers to try to grok what on earth he was talking about, and used Babelfish to translate the Italian conversations taking place on Twitter and FriendFeed in attempt to understand what was being said. Of course, I had also looked up half the people in the room (including the condescending man next to me) and posted a tweet of my own [Danah Boyd, “I Want My Cyborg Life,” apophenia, 2009.07.13].

The snarky professor can contend that the netfreaks in the hall were doing ill by the speaker. But look how engaged Boyd was in scholarly conversation. Without Web access, she’d have been stuck trying to make sense of a difficult speech with just one narrow channel of input… or tuning out and designing sudoku. With the Web, she could access numerous backchannels to seek understanding and context for the lecture.

Boyd, age 31, has been online for half of her life. (I’ve been online for about a third of mine.) She recognizes that what makes us “bad students” by traditional standards may actually be making us better learners:

I have become a “bad student.” I can no longer wander an art museum without asking a bazillion questions that the docent doesn’t know or won’t answer or desperately wanting access to information that goes beyond what’s on the brochure (like did you know that Rafael died from having too much sex!?!?!). I can’t pay attention in a lecture without looking up relevant content. And, in my world, every meeting and talk is enhanced through a backchannel of communication.

…My colleagues aren’t that much older than me but they come from a different set of traditions. They aren’t used to speaking to a room full of blue-glow faces. And they think it’s utterly fascinating that I poll my twitterverse about constructs of fairness while hearing a speaker talk about game theory. Am I learning what the speaker wants me to learn? Perhaps not. But I am learning and thinking and engaging [emphasis mine; Boyd 2009].

Read those last couple lines again: we learn what we want, not what the speaker wants. Thrilling liberation for the dedicated independent learner; a stake through the spokes of the wheels of most mass education business models.

Whether I’m teaching, presenting, or just listening, I don’t like seeing students drifting off to IM and Facebook during class. I once came this close to chewing some butt once when a guest speaker took time off work to speak to our class, and most of the students were utterly disengaged from his presentation and lost in Internet distractions. I wimped out on hollering, only because I didn’t want to make an awkward fuss in front of our guest… and besides, we are all adults—who am I to scold?

But what if those students had been looking up the topics the speaker was addressing? What if they had been keeping one ear on the presentation while using Twitter to get clarifications from each other without interrupting the speaker (a knowledge enhancement strategy Boyd likes)?

How do we reconcile the eager clickety-tap of backchannel Web learning with our pre-Web conceptions of social interaction and politeness? Could the Web be making live, synchronous, one-voice presentations obsolete?

I hope not. I love a good lecture by an enthusiastic scholar. I think there is still great value in the intellectual skill of paying close attention to a single intelligent voice for an hour, or a single book for days. But as more scholars (like Boyd) grow up wired, we must make room for people to learn from the hyperlinky hydra of blog/tweet/wikichat. It’s weird, it’s messy, but it’s still valuable intellectual engagement.