Distracted or Bored to Distraction?

Distracted or Bored to Distraction?

More word on wireless in the classroom:

Meziani welcomes the prospect of students challenging him in class with information they find online. But he doesn’t entirely trust students to stay focused. So he wants a bank of screens at his desk or lectern that would show him what is on each of his students’ computers at any moment. He doesn’t know if such a system exists, but he figures it’s possible, and absolutely necessary.
“I want technology with a safety net,” he said.

Good lord, man. This is horrifying. So some students are distracted from the lecture by the tempting presence of the internet; is it a good idea to distract the instructor from their task of delivering ideas and information to the rest of the class by allowing that instructor to spy on those bored students who opt to check their email instead of paying attention? Lose/lose situation.

If students are bringing their own laptops into class, peering at those screens technologically or otherwise is a profound breach of privacy, and is completely unethical. Shall we also install cameras over every student’s shoulder so that instructors can see exactly what sort of notes students are taking when they pull out their notebooks? After all, paper can be used for all kinds of purposes. What if students are writing notes to each other, doodling, making up a grocery list instead of writing down all those pithy ideas emanating from the front of the room?

Since when do faculty have the right to see what sorts of notes students are keeping on their lectures, anyway? Do faculty have the right to confiscate, say, a spiral notebook a student has been writing in through class? Would they grab it from the student, open it to a page they find pertinent, and distribute it to the class?

I’m quick to point out that there are serious issues around adding wireless to the classroom, don’t get me wrong. I know very well that students can easily invite their friends (or parents) to listen in on a lecture through internet telephony, they can record a lecture (or simply an offhand comment) directly to mp3 and make it available online, they can surreptitiously use the university’s virtual reference system to get stellar answers to a question you pose, and so forth. With the constant improvement of bandwidth, client applications and web-based services, these intrusions into the class are only going to become more and more possible. But spying on screens isn’t the answer. These aren’t necessarily things you would even be able to witness happening if you’re haphazardly monitoring a bank of screens.

Universities need clearer classroom policies to reflect the reality of the wireless classroom. There should be firm guidelines in the syllabus about wireless use, about what kinds of activities requires permission and what is okay. (Note: my version of MS word allows me to record snippets of conversation. Would you need to ban Word, or require permission for students to use it?) Instructors need to be knowledgeable about what software can do and what students have access to. How private is the classroom? Can students invite a friend to listen in from a distance if the topic is of particular interest?Would you welcome input from an interested party outside your classroom? What kind of information-keeping is okay to leave those walls? Students can talk about what goes on in your classroom; can they record it and play it back for others? These things are all possible; where do they stop being useful or desireable? I feel strongly about these issues and I would cheer loudly to see them addressed head on.

But alongside these kinds of policies and discussions, instructors need to think about how to keep student attention rather than just trying to remove or lessen distractions like the internet. Wireless access has introduced a new twist to the lecture; the instructor is not the only thing going on in the room anymore. Bored students have other compelling outlets to keep themselves alert.

From the article:

As the class passes the one-hour mark, distraction spreads like a virus and the screens of laptops increasingly betray their owners’ inattention.

So after an hour, students find it hard to pay attention, and seek out additional stimulus. A good answer to this problem is one many of my former professors have adopted; the multiple-break lecture. In Canada, most classes are three hours long. A thoughtful instructor, worried about attention spans, provides two 10-15 minute breaks within those three hours, one break every 45 minutes or so. This way students can get up, chat, get a drink, go to the bathroom, and stretch their legs. Right when the attention span starts to go they get to take a break.

“Sometimes, you end up paying attention,” said Maria Iossa, a junior at MSU. “But sometimes, if it’s just too boring, you say, ‘I’m going to go on[line].”

Is a boring lecture something we can blame on technology? Does taking wireless out of the classroom make a lecture less boring? Would instructors rather have students staring blankly out windows, doodling in their margins, or checking their email? Still a lose/lose situation, isn’t it.

“Basically, it keeps me from falling asleep,” said Petersen, who is in her third and final year, and says her grade-point average is a respectable 3.3.

So here we see that even good students are using wireless access as a distraction, to keep themselves sitting up in classes. Does this wireless experiment actually show us anything new, or is it just highlighting a problem that’s been there all along? Do we need to reconsider the presence of wireless in the classroom, or reconsider the structure of the lecture format? What would you rather see; distracted or bored to distraction? Surely there is a better way.

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