Thursday, February 12, 2009

Last semester, Will Ross, 21, did the unthinkable. He deactivated his Facebook account. His friends began asking what happened to him.

“It was as if I’d disappeared or something,” he said.

But Mr. Ross, a senior at Grove City College, in Grove City, Pa., would rather send hand-written letters or escape to a cabin in the woods than keep up with his friends’ profile pictures. He joins a growing fragment of college students and professors across the country who are challenging technology trends.

At Grove City, a Christian college with a student body of about 2,500, it’s not unusual to see students texting each other en route to class, taking class notes on their school-issued laptops or sending Facebook messages instead of walking across the dorm to talk to each other.

According to Maggie Jackson, author of “Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age,” almost one-third of 14- to 21-year-olds juggle five to eight different kinds of media while doing homework.

In a 2007 study conducted by the University of Minnesota, 41.8 percent of college students admitted that the overuse of technology negatively affected their academic performance.

Facebook, a social-networking site that connects more than 150 million people worldwide, was created in 2004 by Harvard dropout Mark Zuckerberg, 24. It has risen to the top as the leading academic distraction.

“You can waste a lot of time struggling to maintain Facebook posts … instead of engaging in your schoolwork or true conversation,” Mr. Ross said. He and a few friends, mostly juniors and seniors, concocted a plan for a campuswide “Facebook fast” for the month of December, leading up to exam week.

“One way to realize how unconsciously dependent you are is to do experiments,” Mr. Ross explained. He wanted it to be “something that everybody could do that would get everyone talking.”

They began by targeting about 200 freshmen males - a group Mr. Ross considers most technologically-dependent - through small-group discussions about using the media wisely.

Then they slapped up posters across campus and created a YouTube video that showed a “Facebook fairy” sneaking up on students while they are trying to study.

Mr. Ross doesn’t have exact numbers, but he heard many freshmen guys and a few upperclassmen participated in the “fast.”

Senior Bryan Jarrell heard people talking about the fast after class one day, and decided to take the plunge, despite many questions from friends and family. When his birthday rolled around Dec. 9, his disabled account did not send out reminders, causing only a few friends to forget the occasion. Other than that, he hardly noticed any change in his social life.

Now he says he “doesn’t do Facebook nearly as much.”

At Houghton College in western New York state, Gabe Jacobsen, a resident director, is heading the Simplicity Initiative, a similar movement aimed at challenging students to consider how technology is shaping their lives. In the second week in January, residence staff began encouraging students to abstain from certain technologies in four week-long installments. The technology included iPods, cell phones, Internet usage not related to their studies, television, movies and video games.

Mr. Jacobsen said the goal of the Initiative isn’t to make students give up on media and technology entirely, but examine how it affects their lives.

“They’re noticing that they’re allowing themselves to interact with more people,” he said. “They’re noticing how much time has been sucked away by media and technology usage.”

Laura Day, a 20-year-old resident assistant, said that the Simplicity Initiative forced her to go door-to-door to talk to girls in her hall instead of e-mailing them. She also pulled out her earplugs while walking to class.

“If I don’t have my iPod, and I’m not chatting on my phone, it’s a more pleasant experience because I’m chatting with people,” she said.

Beyond the dorm rooms, professors have noticed the ways that technology has negatively infiltrated the classroom.

“You look out from the podium, and you see a bunch of eyebrows and hairlines,” said Gregory Bowman, an associate professor at Mississippi School of Law. “You don’t see students.”

A year and a half ago, Mr. Bowman banned computers in his classroom for an entire week, forcing students to return to old-fashioned note-taking. Various professors at other law schools, including Georgetown, University of Michigan, Florida International and Harvard, have done the same.

Some students thanked the professor. Others complained that they couldn’t take notes fast enough.

“I gained a greater sympathy for computer users,” Mr. Bowman said. “If someone had been using a computer since she was 6, what kind of an educator am I to say ‘Don’t do that now?’ ”

He has allowed laptops to stay in his classroom since then, but turns them to his advantage by asking students to use the Internet to find stories that contribute to class discussion.

Mr. Ross stopped bringing his laptop to class last year and watched his grade-point average jump from 3.2 to 3.35. While he’s received some “gentle social scorn” for his technology choices on campus, he doesn’t seem to mind.

“I’m mainly trying to simplify and focus on things that are more worthwhile and more lasting,” he said.

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