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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My professor right now is talking about something important and world-historical, but instead of listening, I am writing this article. I just e-mailed my editor telling her I'd finish a draft by tomorrow, but before that I was clicking through old New Yorkers and checking NBA box scores. Normally I'd IM with a friend about how boring the lecture is, but I can see that today she brought a pen and paper and is idly staring into space. Lame.

There are about 100 students in the Columbia University lecture I'm currently attending, and about 10 have laptops. (The lecture consists mostly of grad students in their late 20s, so the ratio is a bit low.) I can see four screens from here; only one person is actually taking notes. Another is looking at the registrar's Web site. The other two keep checking their e-mail.

In sum, a relatively well-behaved class. In my other lectures, nearly half of the students spend time pecking away at laptops, and most of us aren't just fact-checking the professor. This is the classroom of the future: Students use class time to read the Drudge Report, send e-mail, play Legend of Zelda, or update our profiles on Facebook.com. Last year, during a guest lecture by the estimable K. Anthony Appiah on W.E.B. DuBois and cosmopolitanism, I edited three articles for a campus magazine. But the distraction epidemic is really nothing new. Replace laptops with crumpled notes, and the classroom of the future looks a lot like the classroom of the past.

Almost 10 years ago, a couple of researchers from the University of the Kentucky prophesied the coming of an educational utopia in which professors would "replace conventional blackboards and chalk with a collaborative, networked, portable computing environment." For years, tech enthusiasts (and tech companies, natch) have been bullish on putting all sorts of information and technology at students' fingertips. This enthusiasm seemed to hit its irrationally exuberant peak in 2003, when Boeing gave Washington State University $99,000 to create something actually called "the classroom of the future"—which, it turns out, resembles the Star Trek Enterprise done over by Ikea.

But now that 42 percent of American college classrooms have wireless access—and more and more students are using Wi-Fi-enabled laptops each year—administrators and professors are having second thoughts. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal noted that administrators at UVa, UCLA, Stanford, the University of Houston, and others have considered "devices to block wireless access in the classroom after faculty complaints of out-of-control Web surfing." An October news feature in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution sympathized with college instructors across Georgia who "are trying to figure out how to get students to log off their computers long enough to listen."

The Internet is, of course, a distraction.There are some ground rules:I always try to position myself so my screen isn't in the line of sight of the professor or one of the teaching assistants. And after a bad pop-up ad experience, I always press the mute button. Still, even when a lecture engages me, it can be hard to pay attention when the little AIM man starts bobbing up and down at the bottom of my screen.

But are these distractions worse than the old-fashioned ones—doodling, dozing, reading, playing footsie, passing notes? Those of us mucking around on IMDB today are probably the same kids who in middle school, before the wireless age, either skipped class or wrote painfully bad rap lyrics on the inside of their notebooks. (Avi Zvi in the place to be/ Kick all y'all again and you'll never pee … .) The students in front assiduously typing are probably the ones who spent eighth grade taking painstaking notes by hand.

And it's not at all clear that wireless classrooms cause any decline in the quality of student work. One of the most telling anecdotes in the Journal story is that of Jonathan Clarke, a finance professor at Georgia Tech whose classrooms were outfitted with wireless in 1999. He said he didn't realize people in his class were Webbing it up until two years ago, "when the presence of a guest lecturer gave him a chance to sit among the students." What's remarkable here is not Clarke's distracted students, but the fact that for four years his students had been ignoring him, and he found out not when test scores plunged, but when he walked down the aisles.

It could even be that distractions make for better students. Last year, a high-achieving friend of mine—fellowship finalist, budding academic, campus leader—brought the classic video game Quake to class one day, and afterward he claimed that the distraction enhanced his educational experience:

The part of my brain that handles spatial relationships and tactical thinking is clearly distinct from the part that reads, writes, and analyzes historically. I ended up both winning the game with a well-placed rocket and learning everything [the Prof] said.

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.

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?

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