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Boring Profs exposed by WiFi

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David WertheimerPerson was signed in when posted
09:10 AM ET (US)
I just started business school in Manhattan. One of the greatest differences between NYU Stern and its similar uptown competitor, Columbia Business School, was with laptop computer policies.

Columbia Business School has ethernet cables at every seat in every classroom. Students are required to bring their laptops to class in order to reference and share materials.

NYU Stern has no wiring in its classrooms. Courses revolve around active student participation. Professors of even calculation-heavy courses like statistics and accounting tell their classes to please leave their laptops at home.

I chose Stern, and the no-computer policy was one of the strongest draws. The level of discussion when students' distractions are minimized is far superior, and leaving my computer for homework only is refreshing. If I had a laptop, you can be sure I'd be goofing off when I should be participating.
Pat YorkPerson was signed in when posted
12:40 AM ET (US)
This has been fascinating, because I can see both sides of the argument. I have (mumble) years in the trenches of academe, and I've sat through more boring classes than any single person here--I'm almost sure of it. Yet in the worst of them there were kernals of intellectual goodness if you were willing to focus. Can side conversations help you to do that? Depends on what you're talking about and to whom. If it's on-task, maybe it's great. If not, you've destroyed your chances to find that kernal or two.

It seems to me that the level of tech and how it is used in class should be up the the teacher. He/she is the captain of that particular ship. There are so many subtle things that go into producing a wonderful course that he/she must be the final word on distractions.

When I was in school I used to knit. I'd take notes, then knit some more. Some teachers didn't mind, some asked me to stop, some were insensed that I would do such a thing. They were all right.
nougatmachinePerson was signed in when posted
11:05 PM ET (US)
nixomatos knows what he is talking about. The best class I have had in my life (thus far) was a class that consisted entirely of reading classical literature, taking critical thinking quizzes on it, lectures from the professor, and class debate. Nothing high tech: just fascinating material and a professor who knew what he was talking about and lectured in an entertaining way.

I would also like to add that if I was a professor, and I saw a student wasting time on his laptop, then I would let him do as he pleased. After all: the grade more often than not reflects the dedication a student has.
wiseanduncannyPerson was signed in when posted
06:46 PM ET (US)
Here's a question: aren't some kinds of material more usefully presented in a one-way talk?

I teach in a program in which all the courses are seminar-based, 15-20 students max per classroom, and oftentimes it's frustrating to continually make the seminar discussions engaging. As one student said to me just the other week: "Sometimes we just want to listen, sometimes we don't have anything to say." And, damn straight, sometimes there are times in which interaction from student->student or student->instructor is much less important than instructor->student (e.g., when I used to teach statistics -- at some point, students simply need to be told how to do a t-test; similarly, I imagine lots of data structures-level stuff in computer science must be the same).

I don't blame WiFi, and to impugn teachers who are uncomfortable with technology is also silly. If the implication is that college instructors need to innovate because they have amazing resources at hand, then perhaps more Universities should come up with some idea of how to TEACH these things to their faculty. How many 60 year old Sociology profs are going to even know what WiFi is?

And, yeah, Minesweeper, Solitaire, Quake, what have you -- these distract *me* more than their fellow students, and ultimately, I'm the one responsible for corralling the students and helping them have a valuable learning experience. I try to do that when constructive (using IM for group projects, using laptops for notetaking and presentations, etc.), but even if I am the only one annoyed by the games, shouldn't that be reason enough to not play them? Is there no concept of mutual respect left here?

By the way, I don't think that equating a college with a talk at a professional meeting is accurate. In my mind, my classes are not venues for people to saunter in, get whatever they get from my lectures, and then do good "networking" outside of the classroom. Unlike a professional meeting, part of my job is assessment... I am employed to help assist the learning of my students, as well as gauge whether or not they're actually getting it.

You could easily get away with playing during a talk I give at an academic conference, you'd probably just make me feel embarassed as shit. If you did that in a class, however, one shouldn't expect the instructor to be very kind when it came assessment-time.

Nelson MinarPerson was signed in when posted
03:59 PM ET (US)
Heh, I thought I might have made your point, Cory.

But that moment of boredom is the time to go out in the hallway and network, chat with the other bored folks who are smart and interesting enough to get invited. Everyone knows the talks are the least interesting part of conferences! But your meat is all in the same space. Enjoy the opportunity.

The middle ground is people using their laptops and connectivity to do interesting things at the conference itself - blog, make notes, chat. I love Clay's thing of a visible chatroom projected for all to see.
Cory DoctorowPerson was signed in when posted
03:09 PM ET (US)
Nelson, you're making my point! It wasn't a TiBook, it was a new graphite Toilet Seat Special Edition iBook, and the absence of a net-connection at that location meant that during the abysmally dull biz presentation (IIRC, it was a UDDI vendor presentation) I was stuck doing nonproductive work instead of getting soemthing done during the boring bits.

The organizers of that meeting may have had a good reason to ask for that vendor presentation, but I can't think of one. I was bored stiff by an inappropriate one-way talk that was completely irrelevant to me, and rather than being able to quietly get some work done, I ended up distractingly fidgeting. In an earlier age, I might have been daydreaming or picturing the presenter naked, but I sure wouldn't have been paying attention!
cypherpunksPerson was signed in when posted
02:00 PM ET (US)
Perhaps some of the features from the "Chat as a side channel" recent boingboing story ( http://www.openp2p.com/lpt/a/3071 )should be integrated into WiFi classrooms. Imagine if the class had a live web chatroom, projected so the whole class and professor could see it.

If the students are going to be using the network during class, try and channel them into something productive.
Nelson MinarPerson was signed in when posted
01:59 PM ET (US)
I'll tell a little story on Cory. One of the first times I met him was at the first Intel peer to peer working group meeting. It was a boring meeting, we were all bored, but it seemed strategic and necessary at the time.

The reason I remember Cory was that he was sitting right in the front row, with a flashy new TiBook with a beautiful large LCD. And right there on that LCD, in the front row so the rest of the audience could see, was Cory playing Quake.
Nelson MinarPerson was signed in when posted
12:47 PM ET (US)
Meatspace meetings are difficult and expensive enough that when they happen, people should be paying attention to the meatspace. If you don't want to be paying attention why are you there? If your profs are too boring (I've had them too), get better profs.
Edited 01-02-2003 12:49 PM
nixomatosPerson was signed in when posted
11:31 AM ET (US)
Let me disagree a little. I just finished college about two weeks ago so my experiences are quite fresh.

The best professors I ever had sat down and simply talked to us, they were good because they managed in their lectures to transcend the assigned written material; they were also good because they were committed to their profession, their material and us. The worst teachers I ever had used a million frigging blinking power point slides and videos to make their point. I think adding tech to the mix isn't a very good answer, learning requires concentration, and ultimately watching a teacher while playing minesweeper is akin to reading a novel while at the same time surfing the net. This seems more and more like a symptom of the ADD epidemic that is sweeping the world these days.

That being said there were quite a few classes that I couldn't have survived without the Nintendo emulator.
Edited 01-02-2003 11:33 AM
princepoopiePerson was signed in when posted
11:30 AM ET (US)
Being distracted by a DVD or flashy website I can understand. But by solitaire or minesweeper? Or are we exaggerating for effect here? Because honestly, I'm about as easily distracted as they come -- put a TV on and I'm slack-jawed -- and I've not once been distracted to the point of annoyance by anything I've seen on laptop screens in front of me. Has anyone asked their students (the average ones, not the gunners) about this?

halavaisPerson was signed in when posted
11:17 AM ET (US)
Some have already eloquently described my situation. I am a good (not yet great) lecturer, and have taught in rooms with ethernet connections at the desks and in computer labs. I have a lot of sympathy with the idea that profs should make their material interesting and accessible. But it is a broken-window problem: it only takes two people in the front of a 200 person classroom playing solitaire to distract almost everyone in the room.

I don't want to play the "in my generation" and "MTV is satan" game, but students today are different than they were even five years ago. They have different expectations, and a different approach to learning. At least in the two large state institutions in which I've taught, those who come to class wanting explicitly to learn the material represent, perhaps, barely a majority. The rest are their doing time to get their diploma, thinking this is their ticket to a job. And if you ask them, they will openly tell you this.

I do blame the professors and the university system for this in part. We feed such disinterest through multiple-choice exams and large, fairly anonymous classes. On the other hand, we want to reach those students who do come to class to learn, and often this is difficult when you have to compete with multimedia.

I know what you are going to say: I should make my presentations as exciting as whatever they can do on their screens. I try, but there is an absolute limit to time and resources to do this. And as an earlier poster noted, some things are hard, and require effort to attend to.
Edited 01-02-2003 11:18 AM
Cory DoctorowPerson was signed in when posted
10:55 AM ET (US)
Thanks for your post, Sean. I have infinite respect for teachers -- my parents both hold Ph.D.s in education (my mom in elementary ed, my dad in math ed) and my kid brother is a teacher. I spent my high-school years in alternative schools where we were expected to teach each other as much as we were expected to learn from our instructors. I thank my high-school English teacher, Harriet Wolff, in the intro to my short story collection because I really would not be the writer I am today without her. I spent six years in the 90s working for a university contractor, helping with courseware, educational tech, etc.

The thing that got my dander up about the NYT piece was that the teachers described the WiFi as the cause of distraction, not the source of it.

I spend about 20 weeks a year at conferences, seminars, think-tanks and other largely instructional venues. These venues are WiFied up the ass, and typically, everyone present is toting a laptop. In these environments, the "students" collaborate with one another as much as they learn from the profs -- see Dan Gillmor's notion of "Journalism 3.0" for more on this.

The teachers in the NYT story complain that their students aren't engaged, but fail to notice that their students are thoroughly engaged with EACH OTHER and with other people who share their interests around the world. Yes, they may be looking at porn or downloading MP3s, but they're also IMing about the stuff that fascinates them.
I've been to a couple of seminars lately where the organizers went to great lengths to disconnect their attendees from the network, so that we could have an old fashion, "I talk, you listen" event. People queued dutifully at the mics and asked questions, got soundbites from the speakers and sat down. It was the least engaging -- and least edifying -- way I could imagine to learn. When you contrast this with the rich side- and back-channel conversations that take place at better events, the utter thinness of this style of instruction is exposed.

Your IM example is exactly the kinds of techniques I see better educators exploring for making use of the many-to-many conversational possibilities of a wired classroom. This is forward-thinking; the teacher who unplugged the AP in his classroom was reactionary.

I don't argue that teachers should become entertainers, but I do argue that unless your instruction style can accomodate students who are in constant communication with one another as well as the instructor, that you'd better get a new instructional style.

I grew up with teachers -- my parents -- who spent every summer break at school, learning new things and keeping current not just on educational theory, but on *technology*. Yet, at every university, I meet faculty members who are actively uncomfortable with ideas like IM, blogging, email, even hypertext! Universities are the most wired technology freespaces in the world, with fat pipe, enormous labs, dormnets, WiFi, etc. What's more, they offer tons of formal and informal instruction on technology theory and application. Instructors who don't avail themselves of the technology and the instruction don't get any more sympathy from me than instructors who don't bother to learn to spell, or speak in coherent sentences would.

Teaching is first and foremost communication (not entertainment, though that doesn't hurt). If you're not interested in mastering communications tools, why teach?

As to my university experiences, yup, I am bitter. I think back on courses like the Psych 100 program at the University of Toronto: 1900 students in an ampitheatre, and a prof at the front of the room who droned his way, weekly, through the reading we were meant to have done. Once a month, we got a bubble-in multiple choice exams. Our only other course work was spending an afternoon a week typing up lab notes for a grad student.

A classroom like that with WiFi could be utterly transformed. One instructor to 1900 students doesn't scale, but 1900 students to 1900 students does. When I read the complaints of the profs in the article, I imagined that anonymous tic-micced prof from my Psych 100 course, and I wanted to shake him by the lapels and say, "Your students aren't distracted because of WiFi -- they're distracted because you've asked them to learn in an environment that is designed to bore them bovine!"
Edited 01-02-2003 10:56 AM
xradiographerPerson was signed in when posted
10:52 AM ET (US)
One blink, and I'm ten years out of school, but I still have some vague memories....and they include bored annoying students whose parents were paying megabucks for them to be there when they didn't want to be, and annoying the heck out of the rest of us. Yeah, in a perfect world a student shouldn't be demoralized by seeing another playing minesweeper, reading a comic book, or gossiping with someone in the back--but it AIN'T a perfect world. Distractions are....distracting.

College is supposed to be a place to learn--some (if not most) of that learning is about HOW TO FIND (and the evaluate) information. But a lot of this comes from the person at the front of the room who generally lacks a $100 million budget to blow on the latest ILM FX to grab the students' attention.

This reminds me of a cellphone-blocking post months ago, wherein somebody asserted they had NEVER been annoyed by somebody answering a cellphone at a movie of concert. Just last month, I was a performance when a cell phone went off. After letting it ring for 20 seconds, the person answered, talked quite loudly, but also assured all of us around (the entire balcony) that he'd only be on for 30 seconds.

Just 'cause you got the tech doesn't mean you hafta use it ALL THE TIME.
Edited 01-02-2003 10:53 AM
jpancakePerson was signed in when posted
10:48 AM ET (US)
Sean is 100% on the mark, here.

I would like to offer another, semi-connected thought:

A couple years ago I was enrolled in a, to me, very interesting and well taught American history class. It was held in a fairly large lecture room and despite the fact that I found it engaging, some students took it upon themselves to read the paper during lecture time. Understandably, the professor teaching the class was pretty incensed. After lecture one day he marched to the back of the classroom and told the students that they'd stop reading the paper during classtime or he'd kick them out of the class. Fairly reasonable, I thought. It *is* incredibly rude to read a newspaper during class -- especially when the professor is trying his hardest to make the class interesting.

So, how is reading a website or chatting with VaderRules921 any different than reading a paper? Is it acceptable because the person is hiding their slight behind an opaque screen? I'd argue that it isn't. Some people don't care about the learning process -- they may be wholly apathetic or gifted enough to be able to do well with a minimum of in-class effort and, as a result, no amount of skill on the part of the professor is going to make a lecture interesting to these people. This does *not* make it okay for them to do as they please during classtime -- no matter the medium.
princepoopiePerson was signed in when posted
10:41 AM ET (US)
As a law student at a school with wired and/or wireless access in all classrooms, I will agree with wiseanduncanny that net access is pretty much useless during class time. Unless you haven't briefed the case and need to hop on Lexis or Westlaw to grab a summary, of course (never done it myself, mind you...ahem).

However, I do take issue with the assertions made in the article that laptop use itself should be frowned upon, and that seeing other students wasting time by surfing or playing Minesweeper is "demoralizing". Students need to worry about themselves, not their peers. If you're that easily demoralized, you're in serious trouble.

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