Students don’t pay attention in class — duh!

Sometimes technology will change people’s behavior in major ways. Other times the technology will be adapted to basic behavior (but may result in subtle changes). In the latter category is the use of computer laptops in the classroom, as related in this Wall Street Journal story: The Laptop Backlash:

Dennis Adams, a computer-systems professor at the University of Houston, was thrilled a few years ago when his school began providing laptop computers to incoming students and set up wireless Internet access in classrooms. But in the past year, his enthusiasm has turned to dismay.
A recent visit to his class — where about half the 26 students are using laptops — explains why. While Prof. Adams lectures, five students use an online chat room to post comments on his lecture, on classroom stragglers, and on the meaning of his discussion questions. 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. Meanwhile, 23-year-old Mike Fielden buys a pair of sneakers on eBay.

The story goes on to talk about how wide spread the problem is – and how universities faced a similar problem earlier.

The unintended consequences of wiring up classrooms echo an earlier rash of problems after colleges provided high-speed Internet access to dorm rooms. The hope then was that students would use the Internet for research and homework. Instead, many students wasted lots of time sending instant messages and illegally exchanging music files.

Guess what — college students don’t always pay attention in class. And they think that listening to tunes is cooler than doing homework. Why should this surprise anyone? After all, I’m sure many of us sat through enough boring lectures to understand this phenomena (and may have, as in my case, give a few boring lectures as well). And how many of you even today sit in a boring conference checking your emails and surfing the web at your laptop while the speaker drones on.
The answer isn’t to ban the technology – which some universities have tried.

But it isn’t that easy. When UCLA’s Anderson School of Management installed wireless-blocking technology in its classrooms two years ago, the effort disrupted network use in offices and halls as well. Last June, a faculty committee concluded that stopping the signals amounted to a technology arms race that couldn’t be won and yanked out the blockers. After all, the panel reasoned, merely blocking wireless computer networks wouldn’t stop cellphones with Internet access.

The answer — and here is where the subtle change in behavior comes in — is better presentations.

Some professors have responded to the prevalence of networked computers in class by changing their teaching styles. The University of Houston’s Prof. Adams, for instance, 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.

If laptops in the class room have the ultimate effect of forcing professors to teach better, then I would say the digital revolution has really paid off.

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