Mobile computing in the classroom


Educators, News


There’s been increased media attention lately regarding banning laptops during lectures, highlighting a messy, messy confluence of technology and changing consumer (student) behavior.

The argument made by some professors is pretty simple. A professor at the Georgetown law school boils it down like this, “This is like putting on every student’s desk, when you walk into class, five different magazines, several television shows, some shopping opportunities and a phone, and saying, ‘Look, if your mind wanders, feel free to pick any of these up and go with it.’”

But this view is countered by a student who observed:  “”Most professors, even at their youngest, they’re in their 30s,” she said. “They don’t understand how much it’s become a part of our lives.”

While these views are not easily reconciled, the truth is both the professor and the student are right – mobile computing and communications are everywhere, and can be enormous distractions – and are viewed as essential by their users.

So essential, that a recent survey of Stanford students asking about the relationship they have with their iPhones found that 25 percent said their iPhones “seemed like an extension of their brain or their being.”

This issue of technology/communication driven distractions is no less prevalent in the workplace than in the classroom.  Just ask any business meeting attendee how many folks are checking email, during the meeting, and how distracting that can be.

The simple matter is mobile computing is changing the makeup of the student population, and the workforce.  At a functional level, a focused, engaged student can take notes more quickly with a laptop than they can with pen and paper.  And the result is a set of study materials that can be accessed anywhere, and organized with other information.  But how often is a student focused and engaged?  And is that the responsibility of the student, or the professor?  Isn’t it both?

More broadly, banning technology, and technology innovations is the last line of defense in a battle to hold back the tide.  The fact is students are fluent in technology in ways that professors and parents are not, and will likely never be.  And the trends that have caused this are only getting larger and more powerful.

It may very well be that some professors need to establish limits on the use of technology in the classroom, in the same way that in the working world some meetings are deemed “lids down” for laptops and “blackberry free”.

That establishes boundaries while acknowledging mobile technology without trying to eliminate it.  I liked how one professor summed this up:

“The question ‘Laptop or not?’ isn’t as big a question as the question of a screen or not,” he said. “And, sitting in front of 200 students, I can’t really enforce a ban on anything.”

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