Monday, October 13, 2008

Technology in the Wrong Place

Listening is such a simple act. It requires us to be present, and that takes practice.
-Margaret J. Wheatley

A few years ago, I stood in the back of the medical school’s stadium-style lecture hall as a friend spoke to the room full of students. Of the 200 in the audience, maybe a couple of dozen had their laptops open and, from what I could see, few of the screens featured anything relevant to the topic being presented.

This seemed odd to me. These medical students were paying thousands of dollars each semester to be in that room. A world’s expert was in front of them, sharing her passion in a once-in-a-lifetime entertaining encounter covering a subject she knows well and for which she is a gifted instructor. Nevertheless, some of these students had chosen to spend the class time playing games, working on other projects, or checking their email.

A relevant essay appeared this week on the New York Times "Lesson Plans" website. In an essay entitled “Putting Technology in its Place,” high school teacher Matthew Kay writes about competing with his students' laptops in the classroom. The students “…struggle against the frequent distractions popping into their view. Not long ago, students would ball up scraps of notebook paper and pass them around the room. They now instant message three friends at once. Boys would tuck copies of Sports Illustrated under their textbooks — now they open another tab at” He notes that “[t]he sternest words in my arsenal are ‘Screens Down.’”

Of course, distractions have always been available. I’m certain that the students gathered around the Greek sages of old drifted off by drawing lines in the dirt and finding patterns in the clouds. This seems different, somehow. Does the laptop, by its very nature a connection to “authority,” pose a new level of challenge to the teacher? I fear it does.

Next time I give a lecture, I think I will request “Screens Down” from the outset. And, you there, put your iPhone in your pocket, will ya?

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