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Guest Blogger

Guest blogger J. Martin Rochester is the Curators' Distinguished Teaching Professor of Political Science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and the author of ten books on international politics and law. In addition, he has written on k-16 education issues, including?Class Warfare: Besieged Schools, Bewildered Parents, Betrayed Kids, and the Attack on Excellence (Encounter Books, 2002).

Allow me to comment on the growing problem of computers in college classrooms. At my university and other universities, increasingly professors are banning laptops in class, even as many K-12 schools, particularly high schools, are becoming laptop-based.[pullquote]There is a fundamental disconnect, then, ?between the use of technology in precollegiate education and in higher education.[/pullquote]?There is a fundamental disconnect, then, ?between the use of technology in precollegiate education and in higher education. Students tend to arrive on campus considering it an entitlement to open their laptop in class, only to discover that their professor tells them to put it away. I am on the side of those professors who find laptops an intrusion into the classroom, for reasons that relate to broader concerns about the future of education. What's the problem?

First, can anyone deny that today's students seem attached to their laptops, as well as cell phones, iPads, and other electronic?devices, as life support systems, wasting myriad hours in endless chatter and other diversions? While it is true that all of us, including myself, have become heavily involved in, if not addicted to, the Internet in general and emailing in particular, some of us, to quote Niall Ferguson in his recent ?Texting Makes U Stupid? piece in?Newsweek, still ?read books? as ?a quaint old habit picked up as a kid.? ?There is no question that today's youth are becoming habituated to googling, texting, and tweeting and are losing their capacity for much else, including the ability to listen and deliberate and, especially, write and read dense text. These habits are developed early in childhood. To the extent today's parents and K-12 educationists reinforce this sound-bite culture, they are part of the problem. Adults, especially educators, should be attempting to provide leadership on this issue rather than caving into technological imperatives. If K-12 educators will not act, then we in higher ed must do so.

Second, related to the first point, the favorite buzzword in education today is ?engagement.? If that means insuring we are getting students to think, yes, of course, that should be the primary goal of education. However, there is very little hard empirical evidence demonstrating conclusively that ??student-centered, active, discovery, cooperative learning? pedagogy, pushed by ?progressive educators? and often revolving around computers, offer any improvement in academic achievement over traditional pedagogy in the form of direct instruction or lecturing, i.e., ?teaching.? From Montaigne in the 16th century. ?who railed against ?bawling words into [the pupil's] ear ?as if pouring water into a funnel,? ?through Rousseau, Dewey, Summerhill, and countless experiments in ?visionary? education, the anti-lecture paradigm has been grossly overhyped, with little to show for it. [pullquote]There are examples of ?bad lecturing, but there may be even more bad examples of student-centered learning.[/pullquote](I recall the instructional technology guru at my university, a fellow named Bob Clapp, a few years ago saying that ?we are moving from the old paradigm of 90% teacher-10% student to the new one of 10% teacher-90% student,? whereupon I told him this was a bunch of claptrap, given the naivete of assuming that students, whether kindergartners or college sophomores, could be expected to take the bulk of ?responsibility for their own learning). If the ?sage on the stage,? ?chalk and talk? model has some drawbacks, so does the ?teacher as coach,? ?guide on the side? model, which I have called ?the Socratic method minus Socrates.? There are examples of ?bad lecturing, but there may be even more bad examples of student-centered learning.

Third, also related to the above points, the obsession with ?engagement? is essentially a recipe for dumbing-down, as it is premised on the assumption that the entire student body now suffers from attention deficit disorder (ADD) . ?Engagement? comes close to turning education into entertainment, as the new mantra, certainly in American K-12, is ?if it ain't fun, it can't be done.? ?Sadly, this is true for many kids, but not all. There are still some children, more than we think, who do not require constant fun and games and who actually like and can benefit from learning from a superior, better stocked, more learned mind, what we used to call a teacher. Yet we pander to the ?bottom? kids who we are told enjoy, among other things, the flash and dash of electronic media, as if they do not get enough of this outside school. Even if only 10 percent of the class ? the very top ? can follow a lecture, is that reason to abandon it? If we take seriously the idea of ?diverse learning styles,? then we should continue to utilize lecturing, if only targeted at the best and brightest. The historian David McCullough gave the commencement address at my son's graduation at Yale University in 1997, in which he said he could still remember the last lecture given by his English professor on?Oedipus ? he did not say he could still remember the cooperative learning exercise he engaged in! He did not say he was paying homage to his ?facilitators? but to his?teachers. Likewise, the legendary art historian Vincent Scully had no problem getting over 500 students to sit and listen attentively to his lectures in giant lecture halls at Yale.

Fourth, I concede that we can make better use of online delivery ?of lectures from master teachers such as Scully. However, unless one wants to hold up the University of Phoenix as an exemplar of American education, there are limits to the extent that good education can occur in the absence of flesh-and-blood human beings at the front of the room. The role of the teacher remains not merely facilitating but instructing ? teaching ?-- unless the job of the teacher now revolves around turning the machine on in the classroom to access videos or putting the kids in a circle to schmooze. Although there are admittedly horrible lecturers who in dry, boring, lazy fashion read from tattered yellow legal pads, most professors typically combine lecture with other pedagogical techniques, including Socratic method. I long have supplemented my lectures with simulations (e.g., a moot court case in my International Law course), small group activity, and other more active learning modes, so there need not be mutually exclusive choices between lecture and non-lecture. Of course, computers and the Internet are a wondrous technology that have potentially powerful uses in education, if used properly.

[pullquote]It is plain rude and disrespectful of the learning environment to blissfully ignore the teacher, as well as whatever class discussion might be going on among one's fellow classmates, so that one can check on one's weekend dating situation.[/pullquote]Fifth, and this is the key point, most students at most universities are not using their computers (laptops) properly. It is well understood that most students who have their laptop open in class are using it for the wrong reason, not to take notes or to access information relevant to a lecture or search for new information but rather to check email or whatever. Only the most na?ve, unsuspecting observer would fail to understand this fact of life in the modern university. The students are pretending they are attending class when in fact they are out in cyberspace. The use of laptops, not to mention cell phones, in the classroom, not only poses a major distraction to learning ? to hearing what a professor has to say ? but, just as important, raises the issue of ?civility? and ?respect? for learning. It is plain rude and disrespectful of the learning environment to blissfully ignore the teacher, as well as whatever class discussion might be going on among one's fellow classmates, so that one can check on one's weekend dating situation. You cannot begin to understand just how blatantly inconsiderate this is until as a teacher you have experienced this. I know I have to earn their respect and attention, but when they have the laptop open before I have even opened my mouth up, they clearly are not interested in anything I have to say, even if I were the world's most spellbinding lecturer. Sure, I can try to determine who is using their laptop for the right reasons, but I did not join the academy to become a warden and take up my or class time by monitoring and policing proper or improper computer usage. It is simpler to tell the kids to put the toys away for just 50 minutes or longer, depending on the length of the class, however painful this might be for them. It does a real disservice to the rest of the class, those who still take seriously the idea of education, for me to ignore this problem.

Yet this seems precisely what is going on in homes and K-12 schools all across America. As a society, we seem unwilling to acknowledge this problem or do anything about it. Well, call me a Luddite or fuddy-duddy if you wish, but I have joined the ranks of colleagues who have said ?Enough!?

?Marty Rochester

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