Wireless in the Classroom: Asset or Distraction?

Like most colleges and universities, PSU has spent the last several years expanding wireless access to the network across our campus. Except for the residence halls, where population density precludes good wireless service, we've installed wireless in most public and academic buildings. You want to connect, we're usually there for you.

Faculty are raising concerns, however, about the distraction of wireless in the classroom. A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Distractions in the Wireless Classroom, cited the example of one observer…

"[we] were intrigued by the tapping of the laptop keys as students appeared to be taking copious notes. As we looked over their shoulders from our back-row seats, we found instead they were on Facebook, Dave Matthews Band Web sites, instant-messaging friends, and e-mailing fellow classmates." <http://chronicle.com/weekly/v53/i21/21c00101.htm>

While laptops make for better note-taking and in-class exercises, their connection to the vast media, communication and information of the internet poses somewhat of a challenge to an instructor who is trying to get your focus on a specific topic. After all, that is why you're paying tuition.

Frankly, laptops are not the biggest problem. It's cell phones that are changing the nature of the classroom. Imagine the distraction to an instructor when the cell phones go off or vibrations send reverberations through the class. Think of what it does to your focus, then multiply it for the classroom.

I'm not sure there is a simple answer here. For some instructors, those who are more facilitators than information disseminators, student connectivity to the internet poses a wealth of opportunities for in-class discussion, research and analysis. But pity the lecturer, the old-style of class delivery where they are the vessel and you are the receptacle. That tends to lend itself to surfing. Regardless, if you don't respect some basic guidelines of class manners, more and more you'll see syllabus components that prohibit ANY laptops in the classroom. That would be a shame.

I write with a certain sense of authority on the matter. I have my smartphone with me all day. I get text messages from colleagues who want my attention right away. I am always on-call. If someone raises an issue, I quickly get on the internet and get more information. And, if I'm bored and less-than-engaged in a meeting, I check my email. I admit, I'm addicted to my connectivity.

I've found, however, that this type of behavior is perceived as rude and insensitive to those around me. I don't like it when others do it in my meetings.

I also dislike what this constant connectivity is doing to our culture in general. Spend time in an airport, look around at the mall. Everywhere people congregate, they are yakking it up on cell phones, oblivious to those around them. We are fast losing our sensibilities and courtesies in public areas.

There was a time when public phones were in booths. They were designed to help you talk in privacy. Maybe we should create booths for cell phone users.

Regardless, and more to my original point, turn off the signal and stash your phone while you're in class. Use your laptop wisely. It's your money, it's your education. Be courteous.

Penny for your thoughts...

5 thoughts on “Wireless in the Classroom: Asset or Distraction?

  1. We are a wireless society. With the progression of WiFi technology and the advances in technology in general, students are now able to multi-task better than any member of the earlier generations. This capability allows students to be more efficient with their time management skills, and ultimately more productive. Having wireless access within the classroom is a huge asset for students, and whether they abuse this privelage or not is a decision that only they can make. The delivery of information from the professor's mouth to the ears of the students is all that must be preserved. If the students utilize the internet privelage innappropriately than that is their mistake, after all they are the ones paying for this education, why waste it? On occasion I will bring my laptop to class, and will use it to check the validity of what the instuctor is teaching. This is my method of checking the credibility of my professors, consider it a test for them, only they're not always aware that I am doing it. I hope that my comment regarding this matter helps.

  2. I am a student at PSU and I enjoy being able to view notes on my personal laptop during class, but I do admit that it is also very distracting. I honestly do often get distracted by AIM and websites.

  3. The Internet and laptops are useful tools for either the teacher or the student to use during their class. I bring my laptop to classes in which I know I will be taking a lot of notes, because I type much faster than I free hand and I don't have to worry about going back and deciphering what i have typed later on. There have been times when a professor has asked me, seeing as I already have my laptop on and open, to check out data or look something up for him to show to the class. I also will take the incentive myself and look up something I find particularly interesting during class. Some students to abuse the internet and use Instant Messenger or just surf on websites, but if a ban was placed on laptop use in classrooms, it would limit the ability of some students to take notes, and for some of the students who had previously been distracted by AIM or Facebook, they would probably sleep or find some other method of distracting themselves. I hope my comments are useful.

  4. Honestly, if the professor is bothered by students with their laptops, they get the choice to tell the students not to bring them. Other than that it is the students who decide whether or not they will pay attention, and the student who pays for the privilage of being in the class. Professors use tests and essays to ensure that we are paying attention, and if the student has been busy on AIM or any of the multitude of other internet distractions, their grades will show it.

  5. Is there still time to post here? I wanted to mention that I was quite proficient at daydreaming in boring or poorly taught classes decades before the World Wide Web was a gleam in in the eye of Sir Tim Berners-Lee. I am not saying this to boast, but the Internet is not the cause of students' inattention -- at most, it facilitiates it.

    Every new technology changes people's habits and behavior. The automobile gave rise to fatal accidents and changes in courtship patterns. Television lowered standards of taste even as it brought about new forms of entertainment and news gathering. MP3 and the iPod are transforming the recording industry.

    Instructors who are bothered by laptops will either have to learn how to make use of them as an instruction tool or learn to teach in ways that hold the attention of new generations of students. History has shown that it is impossible to prevent people from using a successful technology in a modern democratic society.

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