Lately I feel like my brain is made of mush. I just don’t feel as mentally sharp as I could be and any project I undertake is constantly interrupted and punctuated by my obsessive-compulsive need to check my email and my Facebook account. Sound familiar?
Now, I suppose no one will fault me for my mental dullness seeing as I am the sleep-deprived mother of a two year-old and a five month-old. For me I have exactly 3.5 hours per day to do ALL my non baby related stuff in my office at The American University of Rome where I teach. (I’m back part-time right now and the semester has just ended.) But it doesn’t take motherhood to make one want to occasionally zone out and surf the internet and take hundreds of mini “breaks” throughout the course of a few hours via social media.
My students do the same thing. You can see it in their writing. There was an excellent PBS Frontline documentary not long ago which spoke about the problem today’s students have with always being plugged in and how it affected their critical thinking and forming cohesive, unified thoughts and arguments. What usually happens is they write one paragraph. Facebook break. They write another paragraph. Check email. Facebook and Twitter break. Write another paragraph. Flip through the TV channels. Check Facebook, etc. The resulting paper can often be an adequate collection of well-written individual paragraphs but the paper will be a Frankenstein of pieced together, unrelated ideas and one that lacks focus and unity. In other words, nothing really goes together properly.
What can be done to help the weak-willed among us to block out electronic distractions? Enter my favorite free program for the Mac, appropriately titled Self Control.
Self Control, as described by Steve Lambert on visitsteve.com, is an OS X application which blocks access to incoming and/or outgoing mail servers and websites for a predetermined period of time. For example, you could block access to your email, Facebook, and Twitter for 90 minutes, but still have access to the rest of the web. Once started, it can not be undone by the application or by restarting the computer, you must wait for the timer to run out.
For those of you working on a PC, you can try Focal Filter which is also free and easy to use.
These tools won’t completely alleviate fears that today’s educators have about students being too plugged in to learn, but at least they might help us all make better choices about which media products will occupy our time and give us all a little self control to focus on our important projects and the things that matter most.
Kristen Palana is a Professor of Digital Media at The American University of Rome. Visit her online at kpalana.com.