Friday, December 23, 2005

Are Laptops Bad for College Kids; or Professors?

I’ve had the October 14, 2005 issue of the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) on my desk since the day it came out. I’ve been meaning to write this story for a long time, but just didn’t have the time or opportunity.

But, now it’s time.

In the Marketplace section of the WSJ on that day had an article entitled “The Laptop Backlash,” well-written by Gary McWilliams. As the WSJ is a subscription-only publication, I can’t direct you to their web site to read the original, however it was reprinted by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the URL for the article is: http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/05287/588740.stm. Please do me a favor and hop on over to the URL and read it and then come back to read the rest of my article below.
OK, now, I assume you’ve read it, right?

Well, you know what I think? Boo-fricking-hoo. What a whiner professor Dennis Adams is perceived to be. I’ve been teaching in environments where 100 percent of the students have wireless internet access and laptops sitting right in front of their faces, and I had the entire audience’s attention for more than two hours. Besides, students have been ignoring BORING class lectures for a lot longer than laptops have been around. Before there were laptops, there was the crossword puzzle in the school newspaper. Before the crossword puzzle, there was doodling on notebook margins and before that, there was watching paint peel. If Professor Adams can’t keep his students’ attention for a 50-minute lecture, maybe he ought to take a look in the mirror – rather than to a computer – to lay blame.

Look, there’s no question that we are all fighting for the attention of each and every person we come in contact with every day. Advertising, the Internet, sunshine, snow, catchy songs, iPods, video-iPods, Treos, the phone, the cell phone, Blackberrys – they’re all making attention spans difficult to capture. So what are we to do? Live with it!

Laptops may distract the average college student as he hops from class to class, but the benefits gained from having them far and away exceed the personal and psychological expense. When I attended school at the University of North Carolina (the home of the 2005 national champion Tar Heel basketball team, by the way), we had to hand-write all our papers in little blue books. And we’d get points against us if they couldn’t read our writing. Boo-hoo again, right? Well, heck, we even had to do research in the library – and that sucked when it was a frigid 34 degrees outside. I even had to wear a coat sometimes. But, the bright side was the library was where many of the girls also studied.

The laptop is a tool that has forever revolutionized education. That, coupled with wireless Internet access on most of today’s college campuses, means you’re carrying around an encyclopedia from every country in the world, every song ever produced, every paper ever written, blah, blah, blah – I could go on and on. And, it all fits in a backpack. The laptop is a college student’s gateway to the world they’re about to enter, and it provides them not only a tool packed with information and access, but also a tool to check facts, hear the other side, and an opportunity to form their own opinions. Would professor Adams recommend we go back to the dark ages of education where we have to believe all the rhetoric of each and every professor we had without regard to reality? What’s next, projectors? Should we think twice about putting a projector in a classroom because it might be used by a couple of rogue frat-boys in the middle of the night to show porno-flicks?

Sure, there are and always will be abuses of every system. But, shall we punish the masses for the few? The irony of the fact that the article cites the University of Houston, where professor Adams lectures, the prestigious LIBERAL-arts school known as UCLA, and the University of Virginia as investigating the possibility of blocking wireless-internet access in the classrooms is not lost on me. Should we control what the students see, hear and understand?

Come to think of it, isn’t that what some colleges set out to do?

Ironic, huh?

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