A generation ago, academia embraced the laptop as the most welcome classroom innovation since the ballpoint pen. But during the past decade, it has evolved into a powerful distraction. Wireless Internet connections tempt students away from note-typing to e-mail, blogs, YouTube videos, sports scores, even online gaming -- all the diversions of a home computer beamed into the classroom to compete with the professor for the student's attention.
This isn't just confined to colleges and graduate schools (law schools figure prominently in the article): I encounter a similar issue in workshops that I run. Especially here in the Valley, within ten minutes at least one person in a group of fifteen is going to have their Blackberry in their lap, checking their messages. It's so common I no longer take it personally, and I find it doesn't really work very well to ask people to turn things off, or remind them that they should be paying attention. People know they should be paying attention. They haven't forgotten.
Instead, I take it as a challenge to be more creative and engaging. And I'm not the only one:
José A. Bowen, dean of the Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University, is removing computers from lecture halls and urging his colleagues to "teach naked" -- without machines. Bowen says class time should be used for engaging discussion, something that reliance on technology discourages.
I think this is good advice. I prefer not to use Power Point in talks or lectures, because I find that I spend more time interacting with the technology than I do actually talking to students. But more fundamentally, Bowen's advice gets at a deeper point, which is what you might call the information delivery model of teaching-- the idea that the point of being in the classroom is to engage in a more-or-less formal set of exercises to master a body of information. Everyone has better things to do in the classroom, and there are more intensive and social kinds of learning that you can practice when you're with other people that you can't when you're alone or online.