The Online Universe Is Killing Our Students
AS A LONGTIME community college teacher, I have hosted a lot of end-of-the-semester parties that you probably wouldn’t want to attend. There was the party with nothing but a jug of orange soda, four bags of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, and no napkins. At another gathering, students were sprinkling potato chips on ice cream, then putting that on pizza, and no one acted as if this were out of the ordinary.
Last week, I would have paid to go to any of these parties, because despite the questionable food choices, people were having fun. They were laughing and eating and telling jokes. There was eye contact and lots of smiling.
Contrast that with the party I hosted last week, in a classroom where I had 24 semesters of positive memories. At this “party,” such as it was, the students filled up their plates, brought them back to our table, and then took out their phones and started scrolling. Even though we were seated in a circle, no one talked to anyone else. The students ate and scrolled, ate and scrolled. I did not want to lecture or berate them, so I started doing some teaching, just to interrupt the painful silence.
Even before this fateful party, I knew that something was seriously wrong with my students, and that much of this had to do with the Internet. There were inklings of this pre-COVID. One student confessed to me that he spent 10 hours a day playing video games; another told me that he had a serious problem with online porn. I would walk around campus and see students sitting in groups, each person in their own private world of their devices.
During the Zoom semesters, I could tell from screen reflections that some of my students were watching movies or playing video games. On more than one occasion, an unmuted student’s Amazon shopping assistant spoke to the class. I broke my school’s rules and required students to use their cameras, but still, many students were clearly distracted by other avenues available to them online. I admit I did this, too. During Zoom meetings where I was a passive listener, I used the time to check my email or fill up an online shopping cart—why not?
My husband kept assuring me that when we went back to campus, everything would be better. For some classes, it was. One of my in-person classes this semester was a huge success. The students made friends and had fruitful discussions. There was laughter and activity in the room, just as I had remembered from before COVID.
In other classes, though, the environment felt unreal, as if I were the only human amid zombies. In one course, no one spoke unless I specifically called on someone, a phenomenon I had never experienced in over 20 years of teaching. This wasn’t shyness, exactly, but something scarier. The students seemed to act as though the classroom was the fake space, while the world of their phones was the reality. I couldn’t figure out the problem until I read Jonathan Malesic’s article “My College Students Are Not OK” in the New York Times. Malesic writes that when his students came back into the classroom, “it often seemed as if [they] were still on Zoom with their cameras off, as if they had muted themselves.”
After the party where everyone zoned out on their phones, I deleted the Instagram app from my phone. It terrified me to see the world my students showed me, and I realized I wasn’t too far from being there myself. Like most people in the San Francisco Bay Area, I am busy. I live in a crowded area where it’s hard to get together with friends, mostly due to traffic. Increasingly, we are living our social lives online, and as we do this, the real world starts to feel alien. Since COVID, many of the in-person gatherings I depended on have moved to Zoom. Some of my friendships take place via text exchanges. Like many of us on social media, I unconsciously start to gauge my value based on the popularity of my posts, even as I know I shouldn’t. It makes total sense why as a culture, we are so depressed and so anxious.
Most adults I know recognize when we go too deep into the rabbit hole of the phone, and we pull back. But our students aren’t always able to do this. These devices and what we see on them are terribly addictive. And it’s important to remember that many of our students have grown up in a device-laden world, and COVID pushed them even deeper into that world. Now, some of them are flailing in that online space, unable to understand why they are sinking.
Malesic argues, rightfully so, that colleges must resist the temptation to become mainly online spaces. He says that “if education is built on relationships, then colleges must equally insist students meet their teachers where they are. The classroom, the lab and the office are where we instructors do our best and where a vast majority of students can do their best, too.” Last year, I might have disagreed with this statement. But now I know, on the deepest possible level, that it is true. Surely, it is more “convenient” for everyone to conduct our business and our lives from the comfort of our homes, but the cost of this is too high. We need each other—not just our videos, photographs, and typed words, but our smiles, our hugs, and the sound of laughter traveling across a bustling classroom.
Last week, I took another group of students to the rose garden in Oakland. During the first half hour, I was regretting the whole endeavor. The initial group of us interacted awkwardly; we were all out of practice with small talk. But over time, more people started showing up. People started breaking off into groups and having conversations. We all admired the roses and pointed out ones we especially liked. The sun came out, and we felt it warming our shoulders. This is the best kind of experience of real life, conversation with new friends in a lovely atmosphere. I don’t want to lose these experiences, for myself, but especially for my students. They deserve a better life than the one that can be lived only online.