Wireless in the Classroom: Where’s the Kill Button?

Link to: The Rules of Distraction – Hey, you—with the laptop! Ignore your professor and read this instead. By Avi Zenilman

This Slate story highlights an interesting dynamic going on at many universities. The academic computing and networking teams are working feverishly to bring wireless connectivity to every classroom at the same time as faculty committees are working just as feverishly to figure out how to shut it down. A Wall Street Journal story that has been widely republished by newspapers throughout the country, outlined the consternation that many faculty when they realize that all the open laptops in their lectures aren’t solely collecting lecture notes, but are more likely being used for checking eBay auctions, updating stock portfolios, reading email and keeping up with a barrage of instant messages.

Technical solutions to block the behavior have not been particularly successful; it’s hard to jam wireless in classrooms without interfering with connectivity in lounges and offices. On the surface, there seem to be at least two solutions that do work. One is decidedly low tech–the faculty member can firmly request that students close their notebooks and focus on his/her presentation either throughout the class or at selected points where concentration is most required–regardless of the effects on course evaluations. A more challenging, but potentially more valuable, approach might be to find ways to integrate the student’s natural inclination to use their laptops in class into our goals of improving rather than distracting from the class experience.

A more high-tech solution is to embrace the strengths of wireless technology and use it to help offset the traditional weaknesses of the lecture as Professor William Kaiser attempted in his classes at Berkeley. John Seeley Brown describes an even more elaborate experimental classroom at USC in this 6 minute audio clip from a keynote address delivered for the University of Colorado system. The classroom as described in his talk is financially infeasible for most of us, but many of the benefits could be gained with less technology. This classroom includes:

  1. Twenty-seven screens so that each student in the class can display their individual work. (That’s the part that isn’t feasible for most of us.)
  2. A screen displaying the back-channel chat discussions going on among and between the participants.
  3. A image montage of all images downloaded from the web during the session.
  4. A composite of all the google searches that have been conducted during the session.

As JSB notes, not a classroom for the faint of heart–teacher or student.

One thought on “Wireless in the Classroom: Where’s the Kill Button?”

  1. Gene–

    The link to “back-channel” chat discussions which you provided links to something I wrote last year, just an idea for lectures and conferences. And I didn’t quite endorse the idea of unfettered chat being showed on the screen; I called for a more limited role. There was a discussion a couple of months back in the Personal Democracy Forum weighing the pros and cons of the screened approach, as it had been done at their conference the previous May.

    Otherwise, I’m delighted to help contribute in any way to John Seeley Brown’s pedagogical experiments. I’d be curious to also learn whether you can try any of this at W&M.


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