Saturday, March 11, 2006

Wireless or wireless-less

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)

comments: 4

Stefan Hagemann said...

I saw the point/counter point article in On Campus, and I stumbled over the same spot in McDaniel's remarks that you call attention to. The idea that one should transform deliberate inattentiveness into a "teachable moment" (to borrow from the edu-jargon glossary) brought to mind Neil Postman, specifically these comments from his "E-literacies: Politexts, Hypertexts and Other Cultural Formations in the Late Age of Print:"

"In introducing the personal computer to the classroom, we shall be breaking a four-hundred year-old truce between the gregariousness and openness fostered by orality and the introspection and isolation fostered by the printed word. Orality stresses group learning, cooperation, and a sense of social responsibility.... Print stresses individualized learning, competition, and personal autonomy. Over four centuries, teachers, while emphasizing print, have allowed orality its place in the classroom, and have therefore achieved a kind of pedagogical peace between these two forms of learning, so that what is valuable in each can be maximized. Now comes the computer, carrying anew the banner of private learning and individual problem-solving. Will the widespread use of computers in the classroom defeat once and for all the claims of communal speech? Will the computer raise egocentrism to the status of a virtue?

These are the kinds of questions that technological change brings to mind when one grasps ... that technological competition ignites total war, which means it is not possible to contain the effects of a new technology to a limited sphere of human activity....

What we need to consider about the computer has nothing to do with its efficiency as a teaching tool. We need to know in what ways it is altering our conception of learning, and how, in conjunction with television, it undermines the old idea of school."

Michael Leddy said...

It's always good to hear what Neil Postman has to say. It sounds as though he was writing before computer classrooms were networked, but his reservations still hold. Me, I hate the idea of a classroom in which people are paying attention to monitors, not each other.

Rudy McDaniel said...

Thanks so much for the reading and the thoughtful questions you raise here. As I wrote my half of the debate, I was admittedly thinking about my own experiences with wireless technology in the classroom (primarily in technical writing rather than literature and e-commerce rather than mythology courses). The examples you give, though mentioned in jest, actually sound interesting to me -- what would happen if students were forced to connect Virgil's work to popular media? Even if they miss the mark entirely, it still might give them a chance to connect to these themes on a familiar level, or even give the instructor a chance to point out misconceptions or erroneous lines of thinking. Time management of course is an entirely new beast; I think the idea is that students looking for an excuse to wander using technology would at least be wandering in a relevant direction (and could contribute at appropriate moments or lulls in discussion -- at the instructor's discretion -- rather than immediately upon locating the source/materials/resources).

Having said this, I think I would have had no problem arguing the opposite point :-) In digital media courses, where we routinely discuss search engine techniques, programming, design methodologies, and so forth, the laptop is a valuable and necessary vehicle for instruction. From a more general perspective, while I hate to think of any tool that allows students to access those resources outside the closed confines of the classroom as being a bad thing, I think there are some definite issues that need to be addressed before a wired classroom can realistically be used as a tool for improving teaching and learning in face to face lectures. I certainly think that the ability to zap the ethernet connection or black out the screens during particularly intense or challenging lectures or discussions would be a worthwhile technology to have available.

Again -- thanks for reading, and I enjoyed your take on the article.

Michael Leddy said...

No argument about those Aeneid examples -- I just showed a scene from The Honeymooners to supplement Aristophanes' Lysistrata. But the relevance of popular culture seems a different question from the question of interrupting. I just can't see the interruptions as practical (I'm speaking as someone who teaches mostly via discussion and who likes for everyone to be present to one another). In a course devoted to digital media, yes, the computer becomes a necessary tool.

Thanks for your comment.