Friday, April 11, 2014

On teaching, the web, and internal seething

It's been a while. During the fall and spring semesters, I often find it hard to blog, much less write creatively. I had a rather startling experience a few days ago, and would like your comments, either here or on Facebook. I'm still trying to figure this all out.

I teach at private university in Dallas. You may know this campus. Its buildings demand your gaze. Its landscaping conjures fantasies of outdoor classes on the stretch of perpetually green grass. When you walk through campus, you smile at the aesthetic richness that surrounds you. Inside, students bustle to class, pull out their notebooks and laptops, and chat about the mountain of homework that they somehow (defying sleep and sanity) managed to complete (or not). The professor clears her throat, and class begins.

I know what happens in classes because I not only teach them, I observe them. I also take them.  Yes, I'm incognito: I'm taking an intermediate French class to brush up for my upcoming semester in Paris. Here's what I've noticed in every single class: surfing the web.

No matter how experienced or engaging the professor is, a few students are surfing the web, physically present, but mentally checked out. Some of the surfing seems innocuous: they're emailing someone, texting, registering for the next semester, browsing photos. Other surfing is (to me) shocking: shopping for clothes or watching videos.

It never fails. I'm sitting in class, observing another teacher lecture. The students know why I'm there. I've got my business-face on, and I've got a frickin' notepad in my hand. And instead of taking notes or engaging in the conversation, the girl to my right is browsing the latest pant styles. Hundreds of pants, it seems, judging from the speed of her swiping fingers. A guy in the row in front of me is distracted too. He's shopping for the hippest shoes. It's pledging season, after all. I look back to the instructor, who is giving some important information about the big research paper due in a few short weeks. I look back at the pink iPad next to me. The girl is bored with pants, it seems. Someone has sent her a message. She reads is quickly, then closes her iPad. Finally, I can concentrate on the instructor.

The first few times this scene played out, I left class wondering, "What the hell is going on?" Who taught these silent hellions manners? But I've seen this kind of browsing before. At faculty meetings.
So I can't point the finger solely at college students.

I asked my own class their thoughts on the new classroom etiquette. Does it bother them when the person next to them is doing some online shopping or Facebooking? Do they make silent value judgements on the girl shopping for Easter stripy sandals during Middle-East History? Is she failing or lazy or stupid?
This is what they said:

Yes, whenever laptops and tablets are allowed in class, students are surfing the web instead of taking notes. In some classes, they told me, most of the class will be Facebooking while the professor lectures. It's annoying, they all agree, and distracting. But, as one student said dolefully, "What can we do? We're not going to say, 'hey, can you stop doing that?'" Everyone in class nodded. A few students talked about the decline in attention spans, and that, according to recent stats, students can only focus for about 14 minutes on one topic before mentally checking out. Several students admitted that they needed to check email or social network sites to give them a jolt in the middle of a long class. The distraction helped them re-focus on the lecture.

I'm not sure what to think of all this yet. I do know that multi-tasking (the hallmark of the new generation) leads to lower quality of the individual tasks in the end. I like using the internet in class. My students post their work on Blackboard and we project the work on a large screen to critique. They provide comments to their peers' drafts during class. But I'd be an idiot to think that a few aren't checking emails or browsing other websites.

Here's what I know about the issue:
  1. As a student, it's hard to concentrate on anything but those freaking screens. Pants. Pants. More pants. 
  2. I feel sorry for the professor. (I hate that feeling.)
  3. I make a moral judgment on the student. (Sorry--can't help but think that student is stupid or lazy or both)
  4. I seethe a little, but suppress it because...
  5. It wouldn't do any good to say anything to the offending person. (This last one is the students' perspective. Although I always stop the browsing as a professor, I'm actually completely passive as a student.)
By the way, the students in my class voiced similar conclusions. So I wonder if a wired classroom is contributing to a decline in performance, a decline in thinking, a decline in respect for one another. Do the benefits of convenience and efficiency outweigh the declinations?

I'll be searching for more research on this topic. If you have links, please do share.

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