Students can’t focus, blame LearnLink

November 1, 2009
By Lance Feinstein

LearnLink, the com­mu­ni­ca­tion and e-mail soft­ware con­nect­ing stu­dents and fac­ulty, has become the scape­goat for Emory stu­dents strug­gling with declin­ing pro­duc­tiv­ity, sup­pos­edly caus­ing mas­sive dis­rup­tions through­out the day and extend­ing the time required to com­plete home­work by as much as 300%.

“It’s the dink,” said disheveled senior Lee Goldman, refer­ring to the noise LearnLink makes when a new post is received.   “Whether I’m study­ing for a test, watch­ing TV, eat­ing, or even sleep­ing, I’m inex­orably drawn to my com­puter after hear­ing that sound.  It’s almost like I’m in a trance.”

A typical addict's desktop

A typ­i­cal LearnLink desktop

Mr. Goldman says the prob­lem even affects his per­sonal life: “One minute I’m hav­ing sex with my girl­friend, the next minute I’m pant­ing over my lap­top, fran­ti­cally try­ing to fig­ure out which red flag caused the dink.  I don’t know what comes over me.”  Goldman, now sin­gle, recently began a 12-step recov­ery program.

Research con­ducted by Dr. Leo Fang, Weathers Chair of Clinical Psychology at Emory for 15 years, showed that long-term LearnLink users are unable to con­cen­trate on any one activ­ity for more than eighty sec­onds.  Whether they’re in a group meet­ing, play­ing a sport, or eat­ing on cam­pus, the sound attracts any stu­dent within earshot.

“It’s an incred­i­ble exam­ple of clas­si­cal con­di­tion­ing,” Fang told Torch over the phone.  “We’re try­ing to deter­mine if the same effect can be achieved in a prison set­ting.  Just imag­ine: one ‘dink’ and dozens of escap­ing inmates clus­ter around a com­puter!  The state would save mil­lions on staffing guard towers.”

Not every­one sees poten­tial in the dis­cov­ery, how­ever.  Response to the alarm­ing spike in LearnLink addic­tion has caused a num­ber of sup­port groups to spring up on cam­pus.   Students in recov­ery are eas­ily iden­ti­fied by the bibs they wear around their necks which catch their saliva: severe addicts are known to react to ‘dinks’ with eerie sim­i­lar­ity to Pavlov’s famous psy­cho­log­i­cal exper­i­ment involv­ing dogs and meat.

“Once we’re able to hear the dink, see a red flag, and then accom­plish a sim­ple task with­out check­ing for new posts, we can remove the bib,” explained recov­er­ing addict Sara Newhart.  “Unfortunately, I’ve been fight­ing this dis­ease for the last three years.  My friends don’t talk to me any­more, my par­ents won’t buy me a new laptop—I want to get clean.”

What seem to worry experts most, how­ever, are stu­dents who have yet to acknowl­edge LearnLink addic­tion as a prob­lem.  A Torch reporter over­heard an elated senior brag­ging about the “52 weeks” he has now spent on LearnLink.  “The guy’s never even been laid,” a con­cerned friend told us on the con­di­tion of anonymity.  “He’s wait­ing for a beau­ti­ful, smart, funny girl with demi-god sta­tus.  It’s just unrealistic.”

The prob­lem does not stop with stu­dents, how­ever.  Even pro­fes­sors have trou­ble con­cen­trat­ing dur­ing their own lec­tures.   Albert Foundland, Associate Professor of Sociology, explains, “I’ll be teach­ing a class, and that sound will go off.  I have to check, I just have to.  What if it’s impor­tant?  What if a fam­ily mem­ber is sick?  What if I won the lot­tery?  You can’t seri­ously expect me not to check.”

Attempts to mit­i­gate the spread­ing prob­lem have included a grass­roots cam­paign to change the sound of the “dink” to some­thing that is less pleas­ant.  Suggestions include a car crash­ing, a bomb det­o­nat­ing, or even a mother cow’s sor­row­ful moo­ing over the death of her eldest calf.  Yet, as Professor Fang explains, the addic­tion might be too pow­er­ful.  “Changing the sound won’t do much.  It might help a few stu­dents, but sci­en­tif­i­cally speak­ing the vast major­ity are still screwed.”

An offi­cial from President Wagner’s office declined to com­ment on what solu­tions, if any, the school is explor­ing.  With hope evap­o­rat­ing from the hori­zon, it seems that Emory stu­dents’ edu­ca­tion will con­tinue to be both facil­i­tated and plagued by LearnLink.

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