Why students at the University of Washington want to put their phones away

For almost a decade, David Levy has taught a course at the University of Washington's Information School called "Information and Contemplation." At the beginning of each class, he asks students to pay attention to their breathing. The 20 students in the room can't talk to each other while they do this, and phones and laptops are off limits.

But the students aren't complaining. They signed up for this elective class, which starts each session with meditation, and is part of learning to unplug for the course.

"For a long time," Levy explained to The Huffington Post, "I've been interested in the question of 'What does it mean to achieve contemplative balance in a culture like ours where people regularly feel overloaded?'"

Levy says he wouldn't have incorporated meditation into a required course or a large-scale lecture. He wants students who are open to participating in this practice, which is why he interviews each one before he lets them into the course.

"I basically met face-to-face with all potential students before hand," Levy said. "I told them what we were going to be doing is a bit out of the box, so everybody that came into the class was at the very least curious, so there was no real resistance."

Meditation can improve how students perform in college, according to research from George Mason University. A 2013 paper from GMU professor Robert Youmans and then-University of Illinois doctoral student Jared Ramsburg found meditation can also improve test scores for college students, and "may help students who might have trouble paying attention or focusing" in class.

But Levy's class goes beyond just meditation.

The class is described as a "course that explores how contemplative practices can serve as a lens to observe and critique current information practices and concerns," and looks at the "fragmentation of attention, and the busyness and acceleration of everyday life."

While some professors have spent the past two decades battling to get students to put away their technology and pay attention in class, Levy says he has found that students are increasingly open to learning more about mindfulness practices.

"There's a huge demand," said Alysha Greig, who is director of the UW Mindfulness Project, "not just for yoga, but for practices and a lifestyle that encourages students to take a step away from their hectic life."

Greig started a yoga club on campus in 2011. By the fall 2013, 300 students had signed up and the club had to turn more than 100 others away. "At that point I kind of realized something larger should be put together," she said.

That's when she started the Mindfulness Project, which conducts student surveys on mental health issues and offers free yoga and meditation classes with the aim of reducing stress on campus.

Changing students' usage of technology, Greig said, plays a big role. To that end, the group asks students to take a pledge not to walk around campus with their phones in their hands.

"So many people spend so much time with their technology, it's an underlying craving," she said. "It's easy to go a full day now as a college student without any interaction with another human."

Both Greig and Levy said even when students are interested in learning how to manage stress and reconnect with people, they sometimes need someone to force them to do it. Some of Greig's yoga students say they appreciate her classes because, if nothing else, they put away their phone for a half-hour.

But Levy said he prefers that students would put away their phones voluntarily and not just because they are in a class with a "no tech" policy. To that end, he tries a variety of policies on device use in his classes before settling on one. Once students decide how much to limit the use of laptops, iPads and smartphones, Levy said, they actually start policing one another.

"A black-and-white argument based on prejudices is not very helpful," Levy said. "I'd much rather have a deeper conversation about when these tools are useful or not. This is what mindfulness is all about: notice what's happening when you're using this tool."

Story by Tyler Kingkade, Huffington Post, 4/3/2015