Are We Empowering or Just Enabling?
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.