It’s Not the Tool, It’s the Craftsman
I am on an email discussion list for one of the universities where I have been an adjunct. There’s currently a discussion about the need for paper syllabi in an era where most of these documents get posted on a course management system and many students tend to discard or even ignore paper documents. One of the arguments against electronic versions is that some teachers do not allow students to use laptops in their classes because the laptops make it too easy for students to be distracted by using the Internet.
I understand the logic here, but I don’t think I can agree with it. Yes, it is true, many people today think that they can multitask and so they don’t concentrate on one thing. But in the end, if students aren’t concentrating on what the teacher is focused on, it’s because they don’t want to focus. It’s not like students suddenly discovered how to focus on something other than the teacher when the laptop was invented.
I still have many of my notebooks from undergrad and grad school. I can figure out what my favorite songs at the time were, because I often wrote the lyrics in the margins while trying to pass time during a lecture. Notebooks can also be used to do homework or start writing papers for other classes. Or writing notes to someone else in the room. Or starting that story you wanted to write. Or making some kind of doodle to amuse yourself and your neighbors. Should we ban notebooks from classrooms? Of course not. Even if you did, there’s still staring out the windows.
We’re not going to be able to teach students how to live in a world of multiple-tab browsers by creating an artificial zone with only one focus. We can’t create such a zone, and even if we did, it wouldn’t be helping students live in the world. We have to create a space where they see the value in choosing to focus on one thing, so that they will continue to use that skill once they graduate.
Especially at the college level, I believe in letting students take responsibility for their learning. Either they will succeed or they won’t based on their choices, and hopefully they’ll learn something either way. Some students interpret this as me being “easy” or not caring what they do, but others commit themselves to doing well and make the most of the opportunities I give them. I’ll take that tradeoff because the engagement of the second group creates an environment where we all can get something from the conversation.