Monday, February 05, 2007

The Downside of the Wireless Classroom.

[Some of the students at my own institution are using their laptops to play video games and do on line shopping while attending lecture classes. Apparently, this problem is rampant. I am very impressed with the insights of Dr. Bugeja's article, which are similar to some of the idea's articulated in my book, The Soul in Cyberspace.]

The Chronicle of Higher Education
From the issue dated January 26, 2007


Distractions in the Wireless Classroom

Getting your students' attention may be as simple as requiring them to turn off the technology


When Kevin and Mollie Cooney recently visited their daughter's psychology class at the College of William and Mary, they noted how attentive students seemed to be in the large lecture hall.

The Cooneys, who are both news anchors for the CBS affiliate in Des Moines, Iowa, and who sit on the advisory council of the journalism school I head at Iowa State University, were intrigued by the tapping of the laptop keys as students appeared to be taking copious notes. "As we looked over their shoulders from our back-row seats," says Mollie Cooney, "we found instead they were on Facebook, Dave Matthews Band Web sites, instant-messaging friends, and e-mailing fellow classmates."

"Granted," she adds, "these students were in the minority, and our daughter swears she never takes her laptop to class for that reason. But as parents who pay hard-earned money to send kids to school with better computers than we will ever own, it's a bit disconcerting as to how they are actually being used!"

That scenario is happening across the country. Cynthia M. Frisby, associate professor of strategic communication at the University of Missouri, has noticed students on MySpace and eBay during her lectures. She has also noticed more failing grades. The final straw, she says, came in an e-mail message from a student "complimenting my outfit, failing to realize that the time stamp was on the e-mail, further suggesting that he was not paying attention to my lecture."

Now she bans laptops in large lecture courses and has a clause in her syllabus about the inappropriate use of technology. The result? "Huge increases in attention and better performance on exams," she says. "Students have even mentioned that they feel like they are doing better without the laptop."

Syllabus clauses warning against the misuse of technology are increasingly common. In my own school of journalism, about 20 percent of syllabi contain such warnings. Some examples:

"Anyone who engages in rude, thoughtless, selfish behavior, such as use of a cellphone for instant messages, games, etc., will have his or her cellphone confiscated until the next class session and will be excused from the class. The cellphone will be returned after the student apologizes to the class at the next class session."

"If your cellular phone is heard by the class, you are responsible for completing one of two options: 1. Before the end of the class period you will sing a verse and chorus of any song of your choice or, 2. You will lead the next class period through a 10-minute discussion on a topic to be determined by the end of the class. (To the extent that there are multiple individuals in violation, duets will be accepted)."

As more and more classrooms go wireless, technology warnings on syllabi soon will be as standard as the ones about cheating (which laptops also facilitate). In 2004, only about a third of classrooms provided wireless Internet access, according to the annual Campus Computing Survey. Wireless networks now cover more than half (51.2 percent) of college classrooms.

My own university, one of the most wireless in the country, may be experiencing those problems ahead of the curve. As the number of wireless access points has increased on the campus, so has the number of reports of Web surfing, text-messaging, and gaming during class.

Other high-tech institutions are seeing the same phenomenon. I became acquainted with Ione DeOllos, an associate professor of sociology at Ball State University, after USA Today interviewed me about her institution's purported status as the most wireless in the nation.

Last year, she says, the University Senate adopted a policy "that allows professors to limit technology use in classrooms. Senators had received complaints from faculty members about students who were using computers to play games, watch videos, and e-mail and instant-message others." The Senate decided it needed to make a clear statement to students "that inappropriate use of technology would not be tolerated."

DeOllos added a warning about in-class use of cellphones to her own syllabi, and plans to extend it to include laptop computers, banning them on a case-by-case basis.

Shutting off the wireless. You can't. In a few short years, universities have moved from dial-up, to wired Ethernet, to controlled Ethernet (which could be switched off), to wireless.

Dennis Adams, chairman of the information-sciences department at the University of Houston, wrote about shutting off wireless networks in the September 2006 issue of Communications of the ACM, the flagship journal of the Association for Computing Machinery. "While classroom access to the Internet may be a wonderful teaching tool," he wrote, "it can also be a barrier to learning."

Adams admitted in an interview that turning off wireless was nearly impossible. But you can see why he is tempted. In "The Laptop Backlash," an article published in the October 14, 2006, issue of The Wall Street Journal, a reporter who sat in on Adams's "Management of Information Systems" course observed: "While Prof. Adams lectures, five students use an online chat room to post comments on his lecture. ... Another student spends nearly two-thirds of the three-hour class playing computer chess, instant-messaging, and viewing photos of a fraternity party posted on the Web." The reporter also saw another student buying shoes on eBay.

In his Communications essay, Adams cites a 1972 work by Eda LeShan on "the Sesame Street syndrome." She argued that, by overemphasizing the idea of right and wrong answers, the show taught children that thinking and questions are irrelevant because adults do the asking and answering. Nowadays, the syndrome "has come to describe students who expect to be entertained as they learn," Adams wrote. "If the entertainment doesn't come from the front of the wireless classroom, it comes from the Internet."

Theodore Roszak, whose books include The Making of a Counter Culture and The Cult of Information, has sounded that warning for decades. When cellphones started ring-toning in his classroom at California State University's East Bay campus, the professor of history retired.

"What kids need to learn," he says, "and what teachers must commit themselves fiercely to defending, is the fact that the mind isn't any sort of machine, that thinking with your own naked wits is a pure animal joy that cannot be programmed, and that great culture begins with an imagination on fire. We should remind our children at every turn that more great literature and more great science were accomplished with the quill pen than by the fastest microchip that will ever be invented."

Roszak's greatest fear is that technology "will reduce the mind to the level of the machine."

The Google syndrome. If Sesame Street taught generations that there are right and wrong answers, Google reinforces that lesson but makes no claim as to the accuracy of the answers.

Certainly, search engines and databases are vital in many disciplines, especially the medical sciences.

"In the setting of the medical school, particularly clinical encounters, wireless access is actually beneficial," says Lawrence H. Phillips, a professor of neurology at the University of Virginia. "There is often competition between students on rounds to see who can access clinically useful information the fastest.

"On the other hand, I think my 16-year-old and her friends text-message each other continuously during class and other times when they should be studying," he adds. "The IM function on the computer goes continuously when she is working on the computer at home. This type of behavior will certainly carry over into the college classroom."

Will the emerging distracted generations be able to meet complex challenges on the horizon, like global warming and pandemics?

David D. Ho, chief executive officer of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center and a professor at Rockefeller University, is best known for his work in suppressing viral replication through the use of multiple-drug therapies. Early in his AIDS-related research, he would come upon treatments that succeeded in the lab but failed in humans — "but that's science," he has said. Soon he came to understand that the AIDS virus mutates rapidly, resisting each individual drug. That's when he and his team turned to mathematics, calculating probabilities of the virus mutating simultaneously around multiple therapies. Odds were in the patient's favor.

Computers can calculate those odds in a nanosecond, but they cannot formulate the question nor conceive the process by which to do so. Neither can Google.

"We should be teaching our students to think creatively or to become innovators, not just test takers," he says.

David J. Skorton, president of Cornell University, says that students have been doodling since the days of chalk and slate, "but the ability to check the weather or game scores or the headline news from their laptops during class puts an unprecedented barrier between the student and the instructor."

Coping methods. Dennis Adams, at the University of Houston, is adapting to the wireless classroom. When he makes an important point, he asks students to close their laptops and listen. "I don't abuse this," he says, "but use it as a way to summarize or to communicate a difficult concept." He concedes, however, the problem is probably more in changing the way professors teach.

That is predictable. According to the French philosopher Jacques Ellul (1912-94), technology is autonomous and "radically modifies the objects to which it is applied while being scarcely modified in its own features."

Apply technology to the economy, and the economy henceforth is about technology. Apply it to journalism, and journalism is about technology. Apply it to education, and education is about technology. All must adapt, and in so doing we lose centuries of erudition because principles no longer apply in practice. Worse, because autonomous technology is independent of everything, it cannot be blamed for anything.

To combat technology distractions, some universities are relying on educational campaigns to make students more sensitive to classroom etiquette. The University of Wisconsin at Madison provides information via links to Web pages that faculty members can note in their syllabi. One link ( encourages students to stay on task and not distract others or themselves. Another ( provides ground rules for wireless use and classroom laptop etiquette.

Jane Drews, information-technology security officer for the University of Iowa, believes that a solution to wireless distractions is etiquette education. "From the person who endlessly chats on a phone while in a restaurant, to someone's pager or cell going off in the middle of a presentation or lecture, we are creating a society of very rude technology users. We have an online class offered to freshmen that includes a Responsible Computing' module, with a section on netiquette.' I've suggested it be expanded to include classroom etiquette, too."

I have been advocating a required orientation class, "Interpersonal Intelligence," informing first-year students about when, where, and for what purpose technology is appropriate or inappropriate.

Perhaps the best suggestion comes from my associate dean, Zora Zimmerman, who proposes that student government take the lead with a campaign to "Reclaim the Classroom."

Despite digital distractions, ever-larger class sizes, decreased budgets, and fewer tenured colleagues, professors still are responsible for turning students on to learning. To do so, we just may have to turn off the technology.

Michael Bugeja, director of the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University, is the author of Interpersonal Divide: The Search for Community in a Technological Age (Oxford University Press, 2005).



Jeff S. said...

I am surprised at how common this is, even at Seminary. I don't bring a laptop to class but due to unrelated reasons... it's still easier for me to take notes on paper where I can quickly move around and make extra comments, circle items, draw arrows, etc. But I also worry about how much noise it generates from both the fan and keyboard.
It is also frustrating to be sitting behind someone who isn't paying attention. I've seen too many people write emails or flip through pictures of their last vacation. It's too easy to get distracted and start to watch what they are doing. There's no quicker way to lose track of Hegel's dialectic than watching a slideshow of Joe, Bob, and Mary climb up Long's Peak!

r_erick said...

Last semester at the seminary I attend I was in a class with about seventy people--I counted 45 computers. At any one time atleast one of the six people in front of me with a computer would be checking their e-mail, instant messaging or checking their myspace/facebook. If by some chance they stopped to pay attention then their screen saver slide show would endlessly run through their entire portfolio of pictures. It seems like an upward battle so I just showed up early the next time and sat in the front row. I wonder: Why even go to class? Why make such a large investment (tuition, time etc...) and waste the class period thriving only in intellectual mediocrity? Don't get me started on cell phones...

Becky Vartabedian said...

I have already had "the speech" with my students on this one. Sheesh. I'm looking into the mechanics of banning laptops from class, but I think it might be a losing proposition. It's so distracting for me, now, knowing that my students have wireless access. Oh well, the times we live in I guess.

Paul D. Adams said...

When a new semester begins I set the tone immediately. In my classes I allow laptops only if used to take notes or follow the notes I occasionally provide soft copy. Since I don't remain stationary during lectures and use PowerPoint, I carry a small device to advance each slide / bullet point in my presentations, allowing me to remain mobile. Therefore, I'm walking all around the classroom engaging students face-to-face and get to see what they're up to. On only a few occasions are students doing something unrelated to the class, at which point I immediately call them out. Needless to say, students' undue concern about what their peers think causes them to quickly abort their efforts and re-focus, providing a general deterrent to all.

I've had students attempt to do math homework, text message on their cells, write notes to other students, or even sleep in my classes. It seems that if they're willing to go public with this behavior, then they're willing to be sounded about it. Since I always address it and never let it go unnoticed, it only happens once. This shows the students that the study of any discipline is serious business, not child's play. Thankfully, I've not been slammed by any student because of my direct approach. In fact, I get glowing accolades by my students...for the most part.

The tone of my classes have a certain sentiment running throughout, nicely put by Robert Audi, and worth repeating here. With these remarks, who needs some mindless electronic device?!

“Sound reasoning, critical thinking, well constructed prose, maturity of judgment, a strong sense of relevance, and an enlightened consciousness are never obsolete, nor are they subject to the fluctuating demands of the market-place. The study of philosophy is the most direct route, and in many cases the only route, to the full development of these qualities.”

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

Thanks to all for thoughtful posts. I had a laptop free 20 minutes in my class while I lectured/preached on the evils of diverting oneself while a professor is lecturing. Maybe I'll have some class periods with no laptops allowed.

My next syllabi will feature something on technological manners (an oxymoron to some, sadly).

Susan said...

Wireless is great to have while taking notes during a lecture-style class. One can look up and insert links to additional information right in the notes for later reference; scripture, additional authors, etc. Just because someone is on the web during class doesn't mean they are not attending to the subject matter.

Ordinary Pastor said...

I have to throw my hat in the ring and agree. I outlawed all computers in my classroom.

Interestingly, the students understand and don't protest. I think that may be because many of their cell phones have a lot of the same capabilities.

Do they really think we can't see them texting on their cell phones?

Or, do they think we some how havent' noticed how the typical figgity, ADHD kid has been suddenly transformed into a diligent, focused, lecture-listening, note-taking machine?

I've spoken with other professors and they're thinking about asking the school to take out the wifi near the classrooms. We'll see if that happens.

Michael Thompson said...

Here is a jump to another post on the topic by Scot McKnight

Where I teach there seems to be a void of wireless signal in the classroom portion of the building. I've not investigated this to see what exactly is happening, but it is nice as a lecturer (there is one ethernet access at the front in case it is necessary to get online during a class session, presumably for the instructor). Nevertheless, just this week was my first experience with a laptop being brought to class - probably because there isn't a wifi signal available. I was approached with a REQUEST TO USE the computer during my lecture! This perhaps should make the curmudgeon's list of dos and don'ts for technology. . .

I deferred to McKnight's rule on this one and require anyone who brings a laptop to sit in the front row so that I can 'pop in' unexpectedly if I choose to do so. Right now, though, it doesn't appear that this particular student will be having any problems.

Michael Thompson said...

One further thought. . .

When I was in seminary I occasionally carried a laptop to class but always tried to be very discreet about its use (not having the volume on, setting it up well before the start, etc. . .). I never was tempted to surf the web or check email because I had yet to hear of things like wifi. Go figure.

I did notice, however, that when I would type something into my machine there was usually a rush of people writing down more intently when they heard my keys. I must confess that I did play with this a bit and saw that I could *control* a bit of what others believed to be important enough to record themselves.

There is potential fun to be had here. . .

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

"1) Why does he (Dr. Groothuis) think everything he says is so important that we should hang on to every word (i.e. pay attention)?"

Yes. But it is immaterial. The etiquette is that you listen to your teacher. Why show up if you don't want to pay attention? Are these people in my class? Have they heard me lecture?

"2) Isn't the fact that the students want to surf the internet indicative of the teacher not holding the pupil's interest?"

Perhaps, but the issue is attending to the class environment as a rule. The professor shouldn't have to put on a show. You get a show on the laptop. All of life is not a show, not entertainment.

Becky Vartabedian said...

I've been doing some more thinking about this all week, particularly since a student in one of my classes broke out his DVD's to watch during class.

I'm an adjunct professor at a large, undergraduates-only institution where I teach introductory courses. This scenario gives me absolutely zero room to "shame the morons" who inappropriately use technology in my classroom (but just because I can't doesn't mean I don't have a deep-seated desire to do so!). I just don't have the job security or the freedom to call students out. For this reason, I have to walk the line to find policies that will address the problems I see from where I stand.

Is banning laptops the answer? After considering it this week, no. Maybe it is something as simple as asking students with laptops to choose seats at the back of the class so folks like Jeff -- who really want to learn about Hegel -- aren't subjected to Long's Peak. : ) Perhaps it's a line in the syllabus that states my expectations for employing a laptop in class. Maybe I need to re-read McKnight on this one.

Unfortunately, the nature of my gig means that I can't operate under the assumption that everyone is taking substantial notes when MySpace is just a click away.

nancy said...

First a confession. No I have never been tempted to email, surf, or do anything in class other than record every bit of important information that I could. But... I did purchase and inexpensive laptop 3 years ago and when it gets a bit dusty the fan noise resembles airport noise, not classroom noise (yes laptop users, for $20 get it power cleaned every year).

Anyhow I teach software classes professionally (8 hours/day for 3 days ) and every student is at a computer that is often connected to the internet. Even when I am just lecturing I do not hesitate to walk to the back of the room as I talk. Yes, everyone knows they will be busted if they are goofin off.

As a student at seminary I'm still wresting with the topic. At times I want to capture almost every word said (and this includes questions by students). At other times I find it more valuable to stop typing (or writing) and just listen then think and process. Perhaps we as students should be trusted to exercise discression.

(BTW - anyone who is in graduate school is hopefully there because she is interested in the subject she is studying. I would expect she would want to drink in everything that transpires in the classroom and not even consider email etc. - WOW)