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January 02, 2003
Lawschool laptops

It's been a regular theme here that the new information technology is making life hard for a lot of the people who run old-technology institutions, such as most schools and universities still are. (The new technology is icing in these places, not the cake of how they are actually run.) First it was Elvis Presley and his many successors, making the world outside the classroom so much more enticing than it used to be. Now, cheap computers are finally making their presence felt in the classroom, because now they are cheap enough for students to own them. (As we all know, a computer you don't own is hardly a computer at all.)

This is from today's New York Times:

In a classroom at American University in Washington on a recent afternoon, the benefits and drawbacks of the new wireless world were on display. From the back row of an amphitheater classroom, more than a dozen laptop screens were visible. As Prof. Jay Mallek lectured graduate students on the finer points of creating and reading an office budget, many students went online to Blackboard.com, a Web site that stores course materials, and grabbed the day's handouts from the ether.

But just as many students were off surfing. A young man looked at sports photos while a woman checked out baby photos that just arrived in her e-mailbox.

The screens provide a silent commentary on the teacher's attention-grabbing skills. The moment he loses the thread, or fumbles with his own laptop to use its calculator, screens flip from classroom business to leisure. Students dash off e-mail notes and send instant messages. A young man who is chewing gum shows an amusing e-mail message to the woman next to him, and then switches over to read the online edition of The Wall Street Journal.

Now me, I'm all for chalk and talk. But my background is political propaganda rather than regular teaching (even though these activities have much in common), and I take a rather contemptuous view of "teachers" who can only command attention by commanding it. Haven't these people ever heard of the ancient art of rhetoric, of getting and keeping the attention of an audience, of explaining to them why they should listen, why the subject matters, or even (whisper) why it is actually rather wonderful?

There are two basic propositions being banged on about here, day after day, in among ruminations about other educational things. One is that treating pupils like condemned criminals is not nice. But the other is: because of the nature of the modern world, treating pupils like condemned criminals doesn't work any more. This story illlustrates the second of these two propositions with great vividness.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 07:57 PM
Category: Technology

One would hope that a teacher would not have to work too hard to convince graduate students to pay attention.

At my university (I am a PhD student in finance) we require our MBA students to buy laptops and many of the classrooms are wired for internet access. After the first year of this, the classrooms were also equipped with kill switches for the access. Even the best, most well-liked professors had students surfing during class and distracting others. That they did so speaks more to the maturity of the student than the skill of the teacher. Eliminating their access during lectures strikes me less like treating them as criminals and more like treating them as children, as the evidence suggests some are.

Comment by: Steven Gallaher on January 2, 2003 08:27 PM

Hi Steve:

I thought about expanding in this direction when I posted the original piece. Why do twenty year old's show up at university behaving like children? (You can probably guess my approximate answer.) But I decided this was too big a question to just stitch on at the end of something else.

And of course you're right that a teaching institution should be allowed to make what rules it likes as a condition of participation.

And yet ... dumb question, but why does surfing HAVE to distract others? I can see that it might, in which case the teacher at the front will need to do something about that, but not by its very nature. Surely surfing might be no more distracting to others than just staring quietly out of the window.

Comment by: Brian Micklethwait on January 2, 2003 09:20 PM

I use dictation software and it works, albeit a little haltingly. The sight of words appearing as you speak is a novel sensation.

I suspect personal handheld PCs will soon be used, more like small cassette tape units with the power to generate text directly from the spoken word of the lecture in real time. Students will then be able to read back the whole lecture and abstract it, adding his or her own gloss directly to the lecture text at their leisure.

Currently, computers in business cannot read sound and transmute it into text for a number of voices all at once, without preparing the machine in advance for each voice. This will be solved in the near future with the advent of improved general voice recognition algorithms.

Goofing off on the wireless net during lectures might not be so easy when you cannot hide behind a large laptop screen. Wireless net shenanigans are a transitory phenomenon.

Nothing will change the fact that the power of rhetoric will always be a gift in the hands of the better teacher. That will be a constant. Lazy and disorganized lectures will be more profoundly resented when they are transcribed directly with all the evidence in typescript! So beware the lousy teacher your words may condemn you.

Comment by: Howard Gray on January 5, 2003 02:48 AM
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