Journalism professor asks students to unplug

Students were told to go five days without modern technology.
  • Brent Renneke
May 02, 2010

A professor at the University of Minnesota asked her students to turn off their iPods, cell phones and laptops and turn on the 8-track players, landlines and typewriters.
Last month, Heather LaMarre, assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, asked the students in her principles of strategic communication course to go five days without using technology created after 1984.
The students were allowed to use technology for only work and school purposes.
LaMarre said she wanted her students to realize their dependence on technology by going through everyday life without it.
“Although great as a tool, I want them to realize technology is just a tool,” LaMarre said. “It is not an extension of who we are.”
LaMarre said the assignment forced the students to be creative and come up with alternative ways to communicate, much like if they were in a crisis where technology was no longer at their disposal.
Also, the assignment enlightened the students on what life was like for many of their future employers, according to LaMarre, who said the year 1984 was chosen because this is the time frame in which many of the bosses of today lived in.
“That age group grew up without this technology and comes from a very different viewpoint,” LaMarre said.
The majority of the students in LaMarre’s classroom, however, come from an age group with a viewpoint firmly entrenched in technology.
Lucy Knopff, public relations sophomore, said the assignment forced her to give up her cell phone, which she has used since junior high.
“It is what I know, and it is hard to stray from what you know,” Knopff said.
LaMarre said technologies like Knopff’s cell phone have provided a valuable tool of convenience, but how we utilize this tool needs to be realized.
“I wanted them to realize the difference between using it in a strategic way and using it mindlessly,” LaMarre said.
LaMarre said technology should be used with an intended purpose and not needlessly.
“You wouldn’t just pick up a hammer or screwdriver and use it mindlessly,” LaMarre said.
It is this kind of “mindless” use that ended Knopff’s attempt a half hour after leaving the classroom the day it was assigned.
“After leaving class, I put on my iPod,” Knopff said. “It is so second nature to me that I didn’t even realize it.”
LaMarre said early failure in the project was common, with less than 10 percent of her 43 students making it past two days.
Resistance to even begin the assignment that Monday was evident, according to LaMarre, who said students have grown increasingly reluctant to participate since she began assigning the project two years ago.
However, LaMarre said, the resistance at the beginning turned into a sense of realization for her students when it was discussed on Friday.
“They were surprised just how many hours of the day they were plugged in,” LaMarre said.
Emma Casey, Spanish and public relations sophomore, resisted technology the longest, going three days. Casey said the assignment made her realize being “plugged in” for things like interpersonal communication diminishes the relationship in some ways.
“Relationships that we enter into now are so much more shallow because you have media in between,” Casey said.
However, technology has created a new familiarity in conversation, according to LaMarre, who said students noticed growing frustration among their friends and family because of their
technological absence.
For her students, LaMarre said anxiety from being out of touch was evident.
“They felt concerned they were missing out on something in life,” LaMarre said.
To treat this anxiety, Casey said she had a friend check her e-mail on the third day. She had 225 unread e-mails.
“After she told me how many e-mails I missed, I had to give in and check them,” Casey said.
With things like e-mail, Casey said technology adds convenience to conversation, but it should not be something necessary to function.
LaMarre said this dependence was seen in her students with some refusing to work out without their iPod.
Although being reliant on technology is an unfavorable characteristic, the purpose of the assignment is not to imply that technology is harmful, according to LaMarre, who said technology is a large part of the course curriculum.
“Immediately after the assignment ended, I am teaching them how to use social media in public relations,” LaMarre said.

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