Kill the Messenger

I received an e-mail this morning with this link to “Distractions in the Wireless Classroom”, which appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education. I have to admit, in my first attempt to read this I didn’t make it all the way through. It hit a nerve and I started responding immediately. I gave myself some time to calm down and I think I am in a better frame of mind; one where I might be a little less frustrated.

The article’s premise can be summed up in this closing sentiment,

“Despite digital distractions, large classes, 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.”

And why do we have to turn off the technology?… because college kids aren’t paying enough attention to lectures?

If the lecture is not engaging (see: 1,000,000 Google results for boring lectures), of course kids are going to be distracted. I have lot’s of old college notebooks filled with doodles, bad original poetry, and notes to myself written during relentlessly poor professorial lectures. Why didn’t we think of banning pencil and paper back then? I might have had higher grades. While we were at it, I think I would have been less distracted if we removed the windows from the classroom.

This is a perfect case of the technology exposing an educational problem that has been there for decades and being blamed for causing it. “Kill the messenger!”

I remember working with a school, many years ago, that had adopted a sophisticated computer assisted instruction system. It individualized the math exercises kids practiced, based on their ability level and success rate. Do well, and it automatically moved you to more difficult items; do poorly, and it would adjust the problem difficulty and tutorials to your level of understanding.

It wasn’t long before one of the brighter kids in the class came to the teacher with this question, “What is this?” She drew a division symbol. Rather than explain the symbol and provide the student with some instruction on how to go forward, the teacher instructed the lab manager to move her back to where she started; to do the same work over again. Her reason? She didn’t teach division until the spring.

It wasn’t long before more kids begain getting ahead of the teacher’s timetable. They were excited and ready to learn new things; but they were each sent back to to their original starting point. Eventually, the system was removed because it was causing problems.

Of course, the system wasn’t causing the problem; it was only exposing it. These bright kids were always in her classroom. If she was lucky they were patient and sat silent while she taught to the middle of the class. Maybe she tried to keep them occupied with some special work or projects that they did independently. Removing the technology didn’t fix the problem of how to engage these bright kids who were ready for division; it only put it back out of view.

“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. Now she bans laptops in her 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,”

So, all it takes is to remove the technology and grades go up. This formula for success might help us meet the NCLB standards. In the same article David D. Ho, chief executive officer of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center and a professor at Rockefeller University notes,

“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.”

“That goal is increasingly difficult to attain. We deal with legislatures holding school districts “accountable” through multiple-choice testing as they cut budgets to higher education, resulting in ever-larger classes where digital distractions are most common and where we rely again on computer-graded bubble tests emphasizing right answers rather than process.”

I agree with Dr. Ho and his goals; but; note taking with or without laptops, in overcrowded lecture halls is not going to get us there.

A final story; a colleague of mind is attending graduate school in the evenings. The school shut down the Blackboard server because students were getting all the notes without having to attend class. If it were you, and all you were doing when you attended class was taking lecture notes, and you could get them electronically without attending, wouldn’t you? The important question to ask is “What value is the teacher adding?” Most kids would come if the time they spent in class had real value to them.

Technology is exposing issues that have always been there. This is a grand opportunity to explore the issues and to hear the message. Let’s learn whatever lessons need to be learned. Let’s not turn the technology off. Let’s turn teaching and learning on.


ps: The article makes a number of good points about cyber-rudeness and netiquette. However, I believe teaching students technology civility is perfectly compatible with using technology and not an excuse to ban it.


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