Are wireless classrooms a good idea?

Examining higher ed.
Nov. 18 2005 4:19 PM

The Rules of Distraction

Hey, you—with the laptop! Ignore your professor and read this instead.

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(Continued from Page 1)

This observation may be total hooey. But when Cornell University researchers outfitted classrooms with wireless Internet and monitored students' browsing habits, they concluded, "Longer browsing sessions during class tend to lead to lower grades, but there's a hint that a greater number of browsing sessions during class may actually lead to higher grades." It seems a bit of a stretch to impute a causal relationship, but it's certainly possible that the kind of brain that can handle multiple channels of information is also the kind of brain that earns A's.

In any event, even when multitaskers can't keep track of the professor, it probably doesn't matter much. In lectures at large universities, especially in the humanities and social sciences, class time is usually taken up by the broad outlines of the subject. The real learning occurs when we bear down and pore over the hundreds of pages assigned every week—the lecture I'm currently tuning out assigns about 3,000 pages of reading over the span of the semester—and when we attend small discussion sections with graduate students who go over what we've read. Any good grade-grubber knows that the trick to doing well on exams is knowing the reading, not what the professor said last week.

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Perhaps the real problem with laptops in lectures isn't the laptops, but professors' over-reliance on the lecture as a learning tool.Earlier this week in Slate, M. Stanley Katz contended that "the most effective learning is active learning … teaching must involve presenting students with problems to solve rather than merely lecturing about those problems." Amen, professor. You try listening to rambling, jargon-filled disquisitions for 15 hours a week without reading blogs. At least Gawker solicits our contributions.

Judging by the Journal article, one professor at the University of Houston seems to be cottoning on. He "now peppers his lectures with enough questions to reduce students' Web surfing. When he is discussing a particularly complex subject, he says, he tells students to close their laptops." Now, this could be a problem: If I start actually learning in class, how will I find time to do anything else?

Avi Zenilman is a former Slate intern.

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