Professors long for the days when students brought apples, not Apples, to class.
After almost 10 years of teaching undergraduates, I’m through with the internet, at least in my classrooms. No more will I allow students to use laptops or other electronic devices in my classes. In the new attention economy of an always-on, everywhere-available wireless internet, I admit defeat. I cannot compete against the seductive spectacles offered by 1.7 billion internet users. I’m pulling the plug on the wireless classroom.
I’m not sure if the tipping point was a laughing baby, a lonely girl, a stoned kid coming home from the dentist, or some cat playing piano. But as Michael Caine said in Miss Congeniality, “You can’t beat that.” I know when I am beat. As many other university professors will attest, it’s difficult to get students to read their required textbooks, quite difficult to get them to attend classes regularly, and exceedingly difficult to ensure they’re not distracting themselves and each other by surfing the web or texting in class.
Here’s a list of typical internet activities that my students engage in: Twitter, Facebook, e-mail, YouTube, Google searches, Hotmail, Flickr, and MSN chat (they also spend a lot of time texting on their phones, usually using their laptops as a shield). At one point this year, I noticed two students browsing an online store for cosmetics while I stood right beside them delivering the lecture. Another professor told me a story of showing a movie in class, only to find students using their laptops to watch another movie in its place. It’s getting to the point that I’d have to be Jon Stewart naked and juggling flaming kittens to compete against students’ media addictions.
This is a generation that texts at the dinner table, surfs while watching TV, and records themselves bumping uglies on webcams (you can’t beat that!). They’re utterly addicted to the net, largely incapable of exercising discipline over their media use, and extremely uncomfortable at the thought of being offline for a 90-minute lecture.
A simple thought experiment should have made it clear to university IT departments that installing wireless internet in all classrooms without so much as an off switch was inviting trouble. Imagine giving all students a portable television to bring with them to class. Now connect a telephone and a typewriter to the TV. Throw in every available cable channel in the known universe. Add a database of most modern music and movies. Include direct lines to all of their friends, all of their classmates, and 1.7 billion strangers. Now ask your teaching staff to compete against this machine for attention. This is exactly what we have done the modern education system, and guess what, it’s not helping students.
In fact, a growing number of studies confirm that, except in a very limited number of situations, wireless laptops degrade the learning experience. The multitasking skills of the Millennials are largely a myth. Students are doing many things at once, and none of them very well. These are students who need to learn how to write. They need to learn the discipline of reading long and complex written texts, and they’re sorely lacking in the ability to think analytically. Yet we’re continuously degrading the learning experience with oversized classrooms and high-tech distractions.
Classrooms are not going to get smaller any time soon. Meanwhile, the internet is getting more social, connecting to more consumer devices, and growing more seductive with each passing year. Professors cannot police the laptop use of 60, 80, 200 students or more (nor should they be expected to). Education is not a problem to which technology is the solution. The solution is common sense – unplug, turn off, and tune in to the professors in front of you. Chances are they have something to say that’s worth your time and attention.