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