Friday, April 1, 2005

Are We Empowering or Just Enabling?

I was talking with one of the teachers in our pilot program a few days ago. While he has come to appreciate the usefulness of the Tablet PC himself, he had some concerns about using Tablets in the classroom. Now this wasn't really something I wanted to hear from someone I am looking to as a leader going forward in our project. Fortunately, as we talked further about what has been going on the issue that came to light wasn't with the Tablets per se.

His concern wasn't that the Tablet PC was not useful academically (Phew!), but rather that students were using them to goof off in class. They would browse the Internet, play games or just doodle. Not many students, but a couple. A couple of others were distracted by those beside them, so the negative effect was compounded. In a small class, such as we have at Vermont Academy, this could mean a third or more of the class wasn't paying attention. That's a big problem. It is actually several related problems, but I'll address the Internet access piece specifically.

In-class Internet isn't only a problem at the high school level, either. Stories abound of higher-ed classrooms where the teaching faculty will not allow notebook computers in their classes because of the same issues this teacher was describing. In articles I have read, students own up freely to shopping, browsing, playing games, IMing, even blogging about their class while in class. Here is one such.

So how do we address what is essentially a non-technical problem? Is it really even a problem? Can't some students listen and comprehend better while their hands are engaged? (Being a chronic fidgeter myself, I can appreciate this argument.) Aren't students these days used to multi-tasking and are we just being old-fashioned in trying to squelch this behavior?

Some folks have argued that we shouldn't have computers, or at least wireless Internet, in class because this distraction is too big a hindrance to the learning process. Even though they might have to deal with this in college, that is not our problem nor is it our responsibility. The analogy was made that we don't teach our students to drink alcohol, but they will face that temptation in college. Isn't this just the same? While I do not advocate underage drinking, I would counter that the significant problem of binge drinking on college campuses indicates that maybe there is a problem with that line of reasoning.

My own thinking on this behavior has led me to the conclusion that the only real control of this activity is self-control. Teaching students this self-control is a mandatory part of the college prep process these days. With over 55% of higher ed campuses reporting strategic plans for wireless networks as of the fall of 2004, most of our students will have to deal with this distraction in college. By the time our freshmen graduate, I expect that this number will be significantly higher. (Source: The Campus Computing Project. View their 2004 summary report at this link.) To prepare students for college means more than just giving them an academic base--they need to master many skills if they are to succeed, and learning when to turn off the internet for themselves is going be a key skill.

So how do we teach this skill? More importantly, how do we do it in a way that not only helps the students to learn, but minimizes the negative impact on the classes while the students are learning and failing in their efforts?

My colleague and I agreed that there needs to be a means of control, in the hands of the teachers, that will allow for the shutting off of Internet access during a class when necessary. Some, to be sure, will probably use this religiously so that there is no problem in class. It is their class, and they are entitled to do so. Others may never use this capability, or only at specific times such as when giving a test.

On the other hand, if this is the only means of control that we have--on or off, whether by service (IM, HTTP, content filter, etc.) or completely--the opportunity to learn is severely diminished. We are teaching only control, not self-control.

We also agreed that there is a need for students to be able to fail so as to learn from their mistakes. But we don't want to create a situation where they can fail so completely that their academic standing is threatened. We are an environment that has a lot of supports and they need to be brought to bear in this case. Let the students fail enough so that they feel the consequences, but not so much that they can't recover. This is the major area where we differ from higher ed generally. By and large, a student at university is expected to stand or fall on his own. No one is there to hold his hand or pick her up when she falls. At least not in the same way.

We have to find a strategy that will allow us fairly granular control by student of various access privileges. Then we have to put together a plan whereby the student can rise (or drop) to his or her current best level, balancing control and self-control as appropriate, and the means to help them learn to rise. Ideally, by the time a senior graduates, he or she will have unfettered internet access throughout the day but will have the maturity and self-control to choose wisely when and when not to use it.

At this point, all I can say is that we are working on it. But the fact that we are working on finding the right solution is a Very Good Thing. Some day I hope I can write that we've found the holy grail on this issue. Until then, comments, discussion, disagreements and suggestions are always welcome.


  1. "Ideally, by the time a senior graduates, he or she will have unfettered internet access throughout the day but will have the maturity and self-control to choose wisely when and when not to use it."

    I mean it's all a good idea, but I don't abuse my computer during the school day. So I don't think that i should be punished. Like if I have a free period then I should be able to acess the internet. Personally not to brag or anything but I am more mature then someo of the seniors and I'm just a sophmore! I don't think that the students should be treated differently regarding this. I mean they can always request access to other sites. I don't know really... I just know that I don't use mine during class...

  2. I probably should have said, "by the time a student graduates." The idea is that each student can move up or down in access. If a sophomore shows the maturity and self-control to have free access and not let it interfere with classes and studies, then why not let him have it?

  3. I’ve been talking with people about this issue as well…and I’m in the same camp as Mark: it’s Darwin in action in the classroom. School needs to provide a safe place to fail…and explain to the student (repeatedly) why they failed (just giving the grade is pointless, you need to tell them exactly why).

    Some of what is going on is that students are used to rapid delivery of information and educators, after being in the classroom for as little as 5 years, are delivering information at a slower rate that the students have come to expect in the “real world.” After teaching for 15 to 20 years, the gap in expected versus actual speed of information delivery is very noticeable to both groups, resulting in the behaviors you see.

    I’d also like to point out that the behavior in question is not unique to schools: if you look at what goes on in the “real world,” you’ll hear bosses making the same complaints of their workers. Microsoft even did a study on the subject recently.

    This “speech:” What You’ll Wish You’d Known, by Paul Graham should be required reading for all students.

  4. What do the studies say about the assimilation of information relative to the speed of delivery? My concern is that students who are used to fast-paced information delivery might not be taking the time or simply might not be able to comprehend at a deep level, particularly with complex subjects.

  5. I don't know for sure, but a quick search located this interesting article . Other interesting articles can be found by googleing “clicker” and “attention.”

    Dr. Seymore Papert and Dr. David Thornburg (nice computer guys all) have some interesting thoughts on the subject of schools and learning ( this is a favorite More good Thornburg stuff can be found here)

    You also cited a good article your self (I like the ending paragraph).

    We really need to teach students how to learn, something that we haven’t done a very good job at (IMHO).

    I am vividly reminded of a small seminar (less than 30 people – very intimate) that I attended that was given by James Burke of “Connections” fame. In that seminar, he discussed the speed of information delivery in television journalism (yeah, I’m a huge fan). To illustrate his point, he brought out scenes from his “Connections” series and compared them with scenes from his “Connections2” series. The first series of programs consisted of hour long episodes that had few commercials. The second series was half an hour with many more commercials. The same information was covered in each. Amazing. We even looked at the commercials – even they are faster.

  6. I wish I could have attended that seminar, Scott. It is a fascinating subject. Was information delivery slower in the past because we didn't know how fast we could assimilate it? Is it faster now because our attention span is acclimated to rapid input? Are we not receiving information as completely as we did in the past? Are simply more adept at delivery now?

    The International Journal of Instructional Media article, your first link, indicates to me that in information comes in too rapid-fire a delivery (at least when read) comprehension drops.

    Have you ever read How to Read a Book by Adler and Van Doren? It talks about how to get the most information out of what you read, but acknowledges that reading for different purposes requires different styles of reading. That is probably germane to this discussion.

  7. Yeah, there is a point at which too much information comes at you too fast, but is that speed different for different generations? I tend to think so (a WAG).

    It would be an interesting study subject for your students to take up (especially if you have a psychology class). They could test their grandparents against their fellow students for information comprehension using some media or other.

    My personal choices for such a study would involve the movie 2001 (“It’s sooo slooow, daddy!”) and say, The Matrix for entertainment and a 1968 Time magazine vs a 2005 Time magazine for general news and information.

    It’s even more interesting to compare older texts and movies with newer ones: the older books and movies tend to be more “dense” and would be considered college level reading and too boring (not enough action) today… which is why I trot out the 16mm projector every now and then (tee-hee).

  8. Who knows where to download XRumer 5.0 Palladium?
    Help, please. All recommend this program to effectively advertise on the Internet, this is the best program!