When I arrived at the University at Buffalo, they advertised themselves as being #10 on Yahoo! magazine’s top 10 wired campuses. To be honest, I’m not at all sure how they got on the list, but they did, and they milked it for years after Yahoo! Internet Life was dead.
Wired we might have been (though I never saw it) — unwired we are not. We have a new “mobile classroom” for the School of Informatics lab, consisting of a gaggle of tablet PCs for classroom use. However, unlike some mobile classrooms, we have neither a cart nor a wireless hub to allow for this to be wheeled into a classroom. Central computing won’t allow rogue wireless hubs.
The problem is that they also have decided not to provide access to the wireless network in the classrooms. The reason: they say that professors didn’t want students to have access. That they found email checking too distracting.
I have to say that I sympathize with this. I have no doubt that the major activity of students with wireless access is not related to the class at hand. Now, my first response here is to say “if you are not being interesting, why force the students to listen.” I usually do a pretty decent job of keeping students’ attention, even if it means jumping up and down a lot. But last year I taught a 400 person undergraduate lecture that never, despite my pleas, would be quiet. It was probably, in fact, a fairly small number of students, but there was always a buzz. Even threatening the students with water guns had no effect. I don’t care for myself, but the other students do, and — this has taken me some time to learn — they expect me to enforce decorum.
Still, in spite of this failure to get my students’ attention, I think that it is up to the teacher to create an atmosphere in which students are willing to participate in the class. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I mind if they check their email. Really, the only downside of their checking email — or worse, playing video games — is that it distracts those in higher rows. But cutting off wireless access to the classroom seems to be stupid overkill. Yes, wireless-enabled classrooms mean having to rethink your teaching and evaluation strategies, but it seems silly to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Slate has a recent article on wireless in the classroom. It concludes the same thing:
Perhaps the real problem with laptops in lectures isn’t the laptops, but professors’ over-reliance on the lecture as a learning tool. Earlier this week in Slate, M. Stanley Katz contended that “the most effective learning is active learning … teaching must involve presenting students with problems to solve rather than merely lecturing about those problems.” Amen, professor. You try listening to rambling, jargon-filled disquisitions for 15 hours a week without reading blogs. At least Gawker solicits our contributions.
That’s a lot easier said than done. Active learning is great, but you try it with a 400 person classroom. Sure, my program is stressed to an extreme, but others have similar issues. Cutting off wireless in the classroom is not a pedagogically-driven decision, it is an indication of how broken higher education is right now.