In light of recent news items about college students messaging and playing online poker during lectures, it didn't seem to me that there could be much debate among academics about the inappropriateness of wireless connectivity in classrooms. But On Campus, published by the American Federation of Teachers, has two profs debating this question in its March 2006 issue.
Dennis Adams, who teaches "decision and information sciences" -- i.e., he's a computer guy, not a technophobe -- argues against laptops in classrooms, pointing out that students who have been raised in a culture of ever-diminishing attention-spans need to learn how to focus. Rudy McDaniel, who teaches "English and digital media" -- i.e., he's also a computer guy, not a technophobe -- argues for the usefulness of laptops and suggests ways to deal with students who are idly surfing. One such strategy:
The next time you spot students with glazed eyes peering into a laptop during your lecture, consider a new approach: Ask them to find an online example of a topic you’re discussing and share it with the class. Repeat as necessary with new offenders. That "distracting laptop in class" problem might just take care of itself.I started daydreaming today about how such a strategy might work out. Imagine a class devoted to Book Four of Virgil's Aeneid, the episode of Dido's passion and death. What would count as an online "example" of that "topic"? Unrequited love? Devotion to duty? Royal suicide? Roman marriage customs? (Aeneas notes that he never held the torches of a bridegroom, never really married Dido.) The role of Mercury in Roman mythology? Sword wounds? A map of Carthage? An MP3 of "When I am laid in earth" from Purcell's Dido and Aeneas? An MP3 of the pop singer Dido?
I wonder too how quickly a student with glazed eyes would be able to think up a suitable "example of a topic." And were a student to begin searching for one of these possibilties, what would be the point? What are the other students supposed to be doing while the search is underway? And if class simply goes on while the searcher searches (still out of it!), won't the sharing of the discovery make for yet another interruption of forward movement?
Now imagine this sort of interruption occurring with two or three students, perhaps with arguments and protestations of innocence. Allow two or three minutes for the necessary details of identifying each perp, assigning the task, and hearing a brief report. In a 50-minute class, these scattered minutes would eat up roughly 10% to 20% of the available time. I'd hate to be a student intent upon following and learning from a lecture or discussion while my prof's attention repeatedly shifts from the work at hand to students whose minds are elsewhere.
A truth that bears repeating: Technology makes it possible to do things, not necessary to do them. It's possible to type a shopping list into a cellphone, but pencil and paper are simpler and more efficient. And it's possible to watch tv while driving, but it's not a good idea. It's, uhh, distracting, just like a wireless connection in a classroom.
» Should wireless laptops be banned from the classroom?
(from On Campus)