Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Internet in the classroom

Georgetown Law Center professor David Cole has a piece in the Washington Post, Saturday, April 7, 2007, here, explaining why he banned laptops from the classroom. It has provoked a lively debate among professors (HT Instapundit). My own view is that the issue is not laptops - Professor Cole argues that laptops switch people in stenographic mode, but I myself take verbatim notes, and always have in every serious situation, and find that they are more useful than other notes because they supply the useful logical connectors that otherwise elude me, at least. In any case, I am sure many students are in the position I am of no longer being capable of handwriting for an hour - my hand would seize up, and I couldn't read my notes in any case.

No, the issue for me is the internet in the classroom. My school was an early, enthusiastic adopter of classroom internet even long before wireless. In my experience, the early hope that it would lead to whole styles of learning and so on have been entirely outweighed by the fact that, as the internet has become an entertainment medium, we have effectively furnished students with a full scale entertainment center at every seat. I rate as a strong, popular professor at my school - and my classes are very focused on what I say and what I ask, rather than on the reading per se - yet my students are all in what someone, in an earlier iteration of this debate a couple of years ago, described as "permanent partial attention."

The truth is that I am entirely susceptible to this as well when in the student seat. I will be sitting through some board meetings later this month - I guarantee that I will be multitasking like crazy if the room has wireless access. It happens when I am chairing board meetings for various organizations - you find that your board members, making decisions involving tens of millions of nonprofit dollars, are simultaneously catching up on their email. I know it is ubiquitous across the business world with blackberry, etc., but I doubt it improves decisionmaking.

But I think the worst argument for having universal internet access in the classroom is that a good teacher will overcome the entertainment medium of the internet and hold student attention. It's like the Bikini Calculus video - two dancing girls in bikinis giving a calculus lesson - I'm sure some people can overcome the odds and learn something, but I can't and I bet neither can you. Having the internet on fullblast in class is like have a line of naked dancing boys and girls behind me as I discuss the ins and outs of international contracting. Permanent partial attention, indeed!

1 comment:

Phil McRae said...

An interesting supposition, that ubiuity of the Internet in a face to face settings supersedes the human interaction. I think this is entirely dependent on the social rules of decorum. We go to movies on a regular basis where cellphones are 'online' and connected, yet there is an implicit social contract that if your phone rings you are disturbing the collective.

To what extent will this also become the social norms as classrooms become increasingly connected to broadband, and mobile devices proliferate? It will likely depend entirely on the institutions reactions to mobile devices and ubiquitous Internet connections in the academia.