Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The Internet is Making us Stupid and it starts in the Classroom

It's blame the Internet for everything day! I don't even know where to start. I guess I'll start with the Paper of Record's article on Teacher vs. Technology. I haven't seen one of these in a while, but the tone in this one is particularly galling. The author calls a professor who smashes a cellphone with a hammer (a staged incident to make a point) a hero. Seriously? A hero for banning cellphones? My stock argument is that in order to keep students' attention, you actually need to do something engaging in class. The author neatly counters that argument:

Naturally, there will be many students and no small number of high-tech and progressive-ed apologists ready to lay the blame on boring lessons. One of the great condemnations in education jargon these days, after all, is the “teacher-centered lesson.”

“I’m so tired of that excuse,” said Professor Bugeja, may he live a long and fruitful life. “The idea that subject matter is boring is truly relative. Boring as opposed to what? Buying shoes on eBay? The fact is, we’re not here to entertain. We’re here to stimulate the life of the mind.”

I'm sorry, but time and time again, educators have said that students need to participate actively, not sit and listen to a lecture. It's difficult for most people to learn that way and there are very few lecturers good enough to engage every single student in a 300-person lecture. The author does not even begin to admit this possibility or discuss effective pedagogy at all. I, too, want my students to listen and participate and don't like cell phones ringing in my classroom or have students Facebooking when they should be listening, but you can't just blame the technology and be done with it. Here are some thoughts for solutions just off the top of my head, some of them inspired by faculty at my institution actually doing these things:
  • No more giant lectures. Seriously, most people get lost in these things. Limit them to 50 people. Yeah, I know it's expensive, but we're talking about educating our youth here.
  • Barring getting rid of lectures, how about making students responsible for the material immediately rather than just on midterms and finals? Maybe they have to post something that evening to a blog or turn in a response. Maybe you begin the following lecture with a quiz on the previous one as well as a quiz on the reading for this one. Or, here's a technical solution. Call on the students with laptops to look things up during class and report back. Only lecture for part of the class and then put the students into groups. Make the students do the lectures. All kinds of possibilities here.
  • Have students watch/listen to lectures before class. With iTunesU and YouTube, one could easily use last year's recorded lecture or otherwise prerecorded material and assign it ahead of time. In class, students would be required to do something more active with the material they just listened to--an experiment, have a discussion, etc.
  • Find ways to put the technology to use. I agree with the author that technology for most students is about entertainment, not learning. Then we need to teach them how to use that technology for learning. You may not find an educational use for Facebook, but you can certainly find uses for the Internet. Of course, if you're not using technology for your own intellectual work, this might be a hard one. So maybe you need to do some of your own learning.
I'm sure there are more possibilities. Readers, anything you've done? Any suggestions you have?

As for the Internet making us stupid, see this Salon article on how we're all living in an echo chamber. I thought it was going to be very Andrew Keen like, but it's much more reasonable and thoughtful. Worth reading, especially after the snarky NY Times article. I have more to say, but that other article sucked the life force out of me.