Is smashing a student’s cell phone with a hammer in class a good idea? Articles like Samuel Freedman’s recent piece in the NYT, “Class(room) War: Teacher versus Technology,” paint a very depressing and inaccurate picture of our students as irresponsible or unwitting device addicts who don’t appreciate the value of a good, old-fashioned lecture. He glorifies instructors who waste time and intimidate students in class by staging demonstrations of their disdain for student devices. My guess is that all campuses endure these melodramas, but they are few and far between.

We have an instructor who ceremoniously disconnects the classroom wireless access point at the start of each class period. Another has earned the nickname, “Professor Click,” because he tells his students that he wants to hear the sound of their laptops clicking shut. I can imagine the confused looks on first year students’ faces as they sit down in Professor Click’s classroom and proudly pull their shiny new laptops out of their backpacks, ready to take notes, find relevant information on the Web, engage in all sorts of laptop-supported learning activities, and maybe chat a bit with a new friend in another classroom or instant message their mothers that they are sitting in class at that very moment, only to be told to close the lid.

These cases notwithstanding, I think Freedman describes a rather minor skirmish in a much larger conflict. There is a deepening political struggle in higher education that is tied to the advance of information technology, but isn’t about cell phones and laptops in classrooms. Most instructors set clear expectations that stop short of prohibiting devices that could serve legitimate academic purposes. This is just one of the many classroom management issues that most instructors handle calmly and professionally without resorting to the use of hammers. The vast majority of our students respect those rules because they are in class to learn.

It also has nothing to do with competing for students’ attention. Students not paying attention to instructors in class is nothing new. You could be on fire and some students wouldn’t notice. This has never had much to do with distraction. As a student, I was not “distracted” by the crossword puzzle that I worked on during class. It did not lure me away from a riveting lecture to which I was desperately trying to attend. I chose to attend to the crossword instead of the instructor. Today’s students are not distracted by instant messaging and Facebook; they are choosing them over the instructor consciously and purposefully and this is driving some instructors absolutely nuts. Much of why students behave this way is also not new. Some students find certain teaching styles too painful to endure for extended periods. Some don’t find the overcrowded conditions in many college classrooms very conducive to learning. Some don’t understand or see the relevance of what’s being discussed at that moment and figure they can study it later if needed. Some already know the material or feel confident that they can learn it quicker and easier from the textbook or online. Some students are not in class to learn content at all, but rather to learn what it is that they need to learn later when they are with their study group or alone in the quiet of the library. There is nothing new here. Take laptops and cell phones away and these classroom realities remain.

Some believe that new devices have brought new problems to the classroom. I do think there are a few, but I also think this has been greatly exaggerated by those who fear change. Students want to be engaged in the classroom and engaged students do not play online poker or instant message their friends during class. An EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research survey of over 20,000 undergraduates indicated that students do not necessarily want more technology used during class time. In a recent study at WSU, over 1800 students reported spending an average of 78% of a typical 50-minute class period giving their undivided attention to their instructor, slightly more than they thought was required, and an average of 22% of their time engaged in nonacademic activities on their laptops. They reported that they did not find the nonacademic use of laptops by other students in class particularly distracting and they agreed that instructors should set clear guidelines for laptop use. They reported that their decision to use their laptops for nonacademic purposes was not because they felt powerless to resist, they were effectively multi-tasking, or they were completely disinterested in what was happening in class. These are not the responses you would expect from device addicts.

So what’s new? I will leave my thoughts for another post and encourage comments. I think the larger conflict and what’s really bothering some instructors has more to do with the redistribution of power and authority and what Larry Lessig described in a recent TED talk as the return of a read-write culture. Technology is helping to change the students that instructors face in today’s classrooms in ways that most colleges and universities are only beginning to address.

Ken

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