Distractions in the Classroom: One Professor Fights Back

In a recent video uploaded to YouTube, a college professor produces a styrofoam cooler, a laptop, and a container of liquid nitrogen in front of a lecture hall full of students.

A different kind of upgrade

He proceeds to place the laptop in the cooler, freeze the laptop with the liquid nitrogen and, with dramatic flourish, smash it to bits on the floor, while proclaiming loudly, “Don’t bring laptops and work on them in class!  Have I made my point clear?”

Very clear indeed.

The prevalence of mobile devices such as laptops, netbooks, and smartphones is a uniquely double edged sword for the lecture hall, as well as the corporate boardroom.  On one hand they present educational opportunities through the ability to take notes, do research, and interact with multimedia elements that support a teacher’s lesson plan.  However, they also open a door to nearly limitless distraction.

The education system is struggling with this dynamic as it on one hand increasingly requires students to have laptops, while at the same time, faces a growing number of professors who are banning their use in class.  We wrote about the issues that educators face in regards to technology in our 2008 report, Technologies to Teach the Thumb Generation (http://bsx.stores.yahoo.net/tethge.html) and found that, for the most part, educational institutions were lagging behind both corporate and consumer trends in technology.

What our nitrogen-happy professor was demonstrating was his annoyance with students who use tools that could help their in-class efforts but instead end up negatively impacting their academic performance.  This occurs because it is not simply enough to give a room full of students laptops and expect them to be productive; a deeper understanding of how the technology is being used, and in what situations it may be advantageous to use it, is required.

For instance, taking notes can be accomplished perfectly well by hand, which means a student need not open up a laptop and be tempted by his friends’ Facebook updates.  Polling students or having them conduct research on a topic on the other hand is an appropriate use of the technology.

We are still feeling out the best ways for technology to be applied to classroom settings, and just as in the business world, often the best intentions lead to unintended consequences, such as Information Overload and unnecessary distractions.  Although we do not advocate the destruction of innocent laptops, we do applaud the professor for setting the tone in his lecture hall and recognizing the potential for distraction from technology when used in the wrong context.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.

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