I was reading through Spectra, the monthly publication of the National Communication Association. The president of the NCA, Arthur Bochner, wrote an extended column about “Things That Boggle My Mind” which focused on his general disgust of students today and especially about the student use of technology in the classroom:
As I scan the room, I see that more than half the students have laptops on their desks. Just as many chat obtrusively on their cell phones, while checking their e-mail or sports scores… I feel uncomfortable in this space. It’s not “my space.”
He continues, grieving “the loss of the emotional bond and shared frame of reference” that he once had with his students. Then Bochner goes on an extended description of bad behavior he witnessed in his undergraduate class, which includes cell phone rings disturbing class, leaving to go to the bathroom without permission, listening to music, as well as noisily consuming food and drinks. He believes this is a natural consequence of what he sees as a professionalization of the university, in which students are treated more like “customers” who are always right instead of, well, students. He then ends his essay by declaring his resolve to ban technology from the classroom in order to provide a more meaningful discussion.
As someone who types over 70 words per minute but can barely write legibly at one tenth of that speed, I take issue with Professor Bochner’s equivocation of the use of technology with bad student behavior. I feel that laptops in particular can be used responsibly in a classroom, and even if they are not, playing solitaire or checking Facebook during class is most assuredly not on the level of talking on one’s cell phone or listening to music during class. First, they are not disruptive to other students on any level. Second, students who are prone to ignoring lectures will do so by whatever means possible – take away the laptop and students will pass notes. Finally, this is a self-defeating practice: if the course lectures really are important, students who ignore them by surfing the Internet during courses will perform badly in the course.
In addition, I feel that laptops in classrooms have significant educational value, especially in large classes. I did my undergraduate at a fairly large state school, the University of Texas at Austin, which as a large state school is similar to Professor Bochner’s school, the University of South Florida. I have had my fair share of huge undergraduate lecture courses in which I was stuffed into an auditorium with over 100 other students. I cannot seem to find his course in the catalog, but I would assume it was a large lecture course in which students rarely, if ever get the chance to meaningfully discuss course material. My experience with these courses are that they require students to soak up a professor’s lecture and then either regurgitate it in a final exam or refine it into a final paper. Either way, there is a lot of transcribing going on, which Bochner acknowledges when he references a scene in Real Genius that portrays a college classroom as a tape recording of a lecture being recorded by a classroom full of tape recorders. Laptops provide a way for students like me to take notes at a rapid pace without having to spend a significant amount of time afterwords listening to a recording of the lecture. Instead of producing an awkward condensation of a lecture on paper that often makes no sense weeks later, I can take almost ten times more notes when I type as opposed to when I write.
Secondly, Internet access may have its distractions, but it also provides access to a wealth of information that students can use in real time to supplement lectures. All too often (especially when students in one discipline take upper-level courses in another discipline), a professor will mention a theory, event, or individual that was not previously covered in the course. Students who get the reference will understand it, but those who have not had the same background as the professor will not. For example, when a professor of mine opened a lecture by claiming that a certain theorist we had read provided the foundation for Gadamerian hermeneutics – a throwaway line that actually had some significance in my understanding of the work in question. I pulled up an article on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy which gave me a brisk understanding of the theory in about forty-five seconds. Not perfect, obviously, but I think my understanding of the lecture was improved by exploring this reference during class.
I agree that technology in the classroom poses significant threats to the quality of education in classroom environments. However, an outright ban on technology in the classroom – which may or may not include the pen and paper – is not the right answer. If one wishes to curb disruptive behavior, then ban disruptive behavior instead of banning all the little things that could be disruptive. Students having extended conversations with each other during class is just as bad as students talking on cell phones in class. In both cases, students should be warned and then sent out for this behavior. If someone is obviously not engaged in class, then they should be told to pay attention and participate or risk being thrown out. This applies for students who are playing video games on their laptops as well as daydreaming. I see no need to ban potentially useful technological devices when their misuse is the real issue at hand.