Thursday, April 5, 2012

Should the web be allowed in class?

I was reading about how Ottawa profs fight to put an end to distracted learning:
The University of Ottawa is considering a proposal which would give its professors the power to ban laptops and other electronic devices in the classroom. 
Professors say everything from texting to time on Facebook is allowing their students to do everything but learn. 
"They are distracted and we are competing with that for their attention," says University of Ottawa professor Marcel Turcotte who voted in favour of the policy. 
"You see one student who is really not listening, would be watching the video and then it's kind of contagious," says Turcotte. 
But many students say they learn better with a laptop and the vice president of the university's student federation says it's an important tool. 
"If you're going to be misbehaving during class, eventually you're going to be asked to leave and I can't see why they can't do that for laptops," says Liz Kessler of the University of Ottawa Students Federation. 
Turcotte says he wants to do an experiment with his students, not ban the electronics outright. He wants to challenge students to leave the electronics outside the lecture hall and take a quiz, Turcotte is confident he would see higher test scores. 
Turcotte says the cost of "disctracted learning" is hefty when considering some students are losing out on a pricey education. 
The University of Ottawa will vote on giving the powers to professors in May.
One of the best responses I've seen to the question "Should the web be allowed in class?" came from Scott Berkun:
First, there is a strong academic argument that lectures are an inappropriate teaching method much of the time – it’s just that it’s the only method many professors know or are willing to try. Bligh’s What’s The Use of Lectures? clearly documents the research supporting this claim, and it’s bizarre so few people have ever heard of this book. It is a must-read for any TA or Professor or Academic department head, as it swiftly summarizes the limitations of lecturing and explores the alternatives, all based on well documented studies and research. It’s a well written but academic summation of lectures and their alternatives. 
Second, most people who lecture are awful – the bar is low – and in the case of professors, they are lecturing to people who are captives. The feedback loop in most universities is weak regarding presentation skills, and sometimes regarding teaching skills altogether. Many professors in many universities have never been trained to teach, yet have an arrogance about how good they are, and faith in untested theories about how it is supposed to be done. Theories based heavily on their own experiences as students. People who lecture professionally are nowhere near as good at lecturing as they think they are, and never put themselves in a situation where it’s possible to discover that gap. 
Third, before anyone makes claims about “this generation” the question remains: among the teachers in any school, in any era, some will do a better job of keeping students attention than others – how do these teachers do it? And can they teach those skills / attitudes / behaviors to the other teachers? Even if students have brain implants straight into the Matrix, some teachers will do better than others and that’s the framework any teacher should be starting from. 
Fundamentally this problem is ageless. The web is not going away in the same way, despite teachers wishes, daydreamable windows, chewing gum, and passing notes, persisted. It has always been very hard to keep the attention of any group of people, at any age, at any time. And the people who have tended to be successful in overcoming these challenges are the ones who either 1) develop true teaching and persuasive skills, or 2) partner with their students in finding a mutually beneficial solution, rather than stumbling backwards into inflicting a fantasy of obedience on them.
Whether we like it or not, technology is acting as a disruptive force on the status quo of education. We can pout about it and try and ban technology as an act of "distraction" or we can wake up and embrace it. 

Throwing a temper tantrum and banning technology might be the best way to ensure schools remain irrelevant for most children.


  1. Great post. Here are two different responses to this problem of distraction;

    A: We are competing with Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and texting for our students attention, so I better make sure what I am presenting is interesting enough for them to want to be engaged in what I am saying.

    B: We are competing with Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and texting for our students attention, so I better not allow those things so they will listen to me instead.

    I know which method of teaching I prefer.

  2. Depends, we would not leave sweets around kids and then ask them to eat in a responsible way. It is not the kid who is choosing, but the sugar. For many students the web is a social medium and not a learning medium and a powerful distracter like sugar.

    That being said , I still believe that problems should be solved in a collaborative way between students and profs, where both concerns - those of the students and profs are addressed


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