Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Multitasking as an ethical problem

The ISW crowd recognizes the inattention that flows from the temptation to text, websurf, etc. as learning challenges. Might F. Daniel Siciliano and Katharine Martin have a different way to discourage this amongst our students — by pointing out that such inattention is a potential ethical problem too?

...research shows that effective multi-tasking is a myth. The brain simply cannot concentrate on two things at once; instead it switches back and forth between tasks—with considerable degradation of performance. 

Martin went on to suggest that in situations where a person has fiduciary duties to fulfill, conscious inattention to an important decision might be adduced as evidence of bad faith, as well as a breach of those duties. In other words, a corporate board member sending e-mails on his or her Blackberry, tablet, or PC while the board is in session could create liability for damages if a decision the board comes to is a bad one. Because electronic devices leave a distinct trail of digital evidence, it could be possible for a plaintiff to establish that the member was not paying attention when an important vote was taken.

Could we pitch to our students that a no device policy is a matter of developing professional ethics — not just a matter of classroom decorum?


  1. In the south we just call it bad manners!

  2. The students don't have any responsibilitynlike that, though. I did my first device ban last semester, and I said, like gxgraham did, that it was rude and disrespectful to me and their fellow students.

    I was surprised by the way, at how minor the sniping was about the ban, and how many students said they appreciated it.

  3. I agree with Elizabeth and gxgraham that banning them from the classroom is the best move. I make it a question of respect and improving learning outcomes. I too have had few complaints about this policy.

    As to Martin's argument, the example used is very poor. The fact that someone texts while a discussion on an important vote is taking place may well help explain why the board member voted that way, but it does not account for the other 'misguided' votes unless all where engaged in similar behavior. If that was happening and the leader of the discussion did nothing to stem that activity then he is responsible for the overall environment that lead to the bad consequence.

    A much better example would be where someone is on a cell phone while driving and ends up in an accident that harms someone. There is a more direct correlation between the act of being on the cell phone and being in the accident.

    Then the question is raised as to the amount of harm that has to result before we question multi-tasking and degrees of moral responsibility. What about talking with a passenger, or talking to another board member, or student. The issue of when one is morally culpable, or the degree of culpability, for a consequence is sometimes not easy to determine and I tend to think that Siciliano and Martin have oversimplified this complex issue.

    Anyway, it might make for an interesting topic regarding moral development. But, I will not wait for the outcome of the discussion to make it a policy that electronic devices are not allowed in my classroom.

  4. An issue to consider. What counts as multitasking?

    Is taking notes during class an example of multitasking? Is watching someone sign for a deaf student multitasking? What about a student looking at, or thinking about, a person she or he finds desirable or interesting during class? How about a parent leaving a board meeting to deal with a family matter and he or she misses an important vote that leads to a bad consequence and his or her vote could have made the difference? What about thinking about the lecture I am about to give while I drive to school? How can a person always 'be in the moment?'

    One could go on and on.


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