NYU Professor: Put Away Your Laptops Or “Go Enroll In The University Of Phoenix”

on 13 September, 2012

Over the last several years, this campus has become wired: WiFi fills residence halls, parks and classrooms; we use Google’s mail and collaborative tools; the administration has pushed for more online textbooks and lesson plans; computers, projectors and even Blu-Ray players are commonplace in classrooms. We’ve moved registrar resources, course signups and all forms of communication to the Internet. We have classes sharing Tumblr accounts, Twitter handles, Basecamp workflows and YouTube channels. We are surrounded by technology every day. So why are more professors than ever banning students from bringing it into the classroom?

Students’ fears on the first day of class used to be about coursework and attendance policy. But today’s students enter their first lecture anxiously awaiting the professor’s electronic device policy. It’s not uncommon to hear hundreds of laptops clapping shut shortly after syllabi are distributed. It’s the sound of an epidemic.

In 2011, NYU’s required liberal arts program (known as the Morse Academic Plan, or MAP) added a policy statement to its Academic Guidelines about the fate of laptops in MAP classes. Rather than fully restricting use, the statement supports teachers’ individual decisions to prohibit or allow laptops in class. Outside of the MAP program, professors in every department are exercising their right to reduce the learning environment back to pen and paper.

Pen and paper? Have we come nowhere since the clay slab and the wax tablet of ancient education? Well, we’ve added Gutenberg’s magical innovation — you know, the one you can thank for your $200 textbooks — but in some classes, that’s the only technology allowed. That system of text and teacher has been pretty effective throughout history, but if you look around today you might notice things have changed a bit.

Professor Vincent Renzi is the director of the MAP program’s Foundation of Scientific Inquiry (FCC). He oversees the humanities, arts and social sciences classes known as Texts and Ideas, Cultures and Contexts, Societies and the Social Sciences, and Expressive Culture. He, like many other professors, does not allow laptops or tablets in class. What are his reasons?

REASON ONE: Laptops create a physical barrier between the instructor and the student (or, “The Cuisinart argument”)

Renzi wholeheartedly believes that paper is the ideal classroom tool. Anything more complicated — laptops and tablets included — is a barrier between students and teachers, a threat to “immediate interpersonal communication.” He and other educators believe the computer creates distance, and for the same reason these teachers tend to dislike distance learning. (But that’s another topic.)

He argues that if a given technology exists and students show proficiency, it does not mean the tool is useful, necessary or worth adopting. To him, technology outside of the classroom is not necessarily relevant inside the classroom.

“I use a Cuisinart to make my dinner, but I don’t use a Cuisinart to read Plato,” he said. So that settles that: you should not use your laptop in class because if every single innovation can’t contribute to education, then none can.

But if we’re digital natives, the architecture of our education must help us thrive, much like a retirement home is built with wider doors, ramps and elevators to account for wheelchairs. So what about building our classroom on a digital foundation?

Renzi reflected on the potential of a world with electronic worksheet submissions “zapped” to his iPhone, concluding “I could imagine that in some kind of Star Trek fantasy.” How can teachers ever learn to appreciate the role of technology in the classroom if they see it as a sci-fi fantasy?

He questions the idea of digital natives, arguing that today’s students “can make bright pretty pictures on iPads but can’t actually get quality out of what they’re doing” or find good information using online information sources. So if one of the main reasons we’re not allowed to use laptops in class is because our proficiency is mostly superficial, doesn’t that mean the MAP program should be teaching us how to use them properly? Isn’t that what MAP is all about?

In standard 12 of the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, which accredits NYU as an academic institution, technological competency is listed right beside critical analysis and reasoning, scientific and quantitative reasoning, and oral and written communication skills. But when MAP was founded, NYU faculty decided that it didn’t have a place in the curriculum and voted against it.

We’re punished for (apparently) not knowing how to use technology correctly and denied the opportunity to learn how to do it better. Sure, professors have the option of applying technology to their classrooms. But if they don’t?

Renzi has a solution: “Drop out of NYU and go enroll in the University of Phoenix.”

REASON TWO: It encourages students to think that the point of note-taking is to take transcription rather than taking notes. (or, “The blood sucking argument”)

The argument here is that technology lets us do things (like taking notes) much faster, thereby saving time, and that instead of encouraging students to use that saved time to participate and reflect, we are motivated to become stenographers. To some degree, this does happen. But this is usually only the case in poorly structured classes, where the professor has not made notes or other sources available outside of class. The result is an army of wide-eyed students poised to copy down every utterance, as if to create some scribbled textbook or bible based on the lessons. We’ll call this the “blood sucking argument,” since students greedily suck the information out of class and into their notebooks.

Some teachers have noticed these bloodsuckers. Liel Leibovitz is a professor in the Department of Media, Culture and Communication whose research primarily focuses on interactive media and video games. He posts his notes online before each session and says that “students often like to plug in” with their laptops tuned to the notes “as class progresses.”

The same can be said of Professor Trace Jordan, Director of the MAP program’s Foundations of Scientific Inquiry division. Jordan encourages students to follow his lessons by downloading or printing slides from the class website. Since all jargon, diagrams and key information are already in plain sight, class discussions are more engaging and in-class notes are only necessary to add supplemental information.

If teachers are creating an environment where content is spilling out but not substantiated in handouts, videos and secondary sources, and in response students are transcribing the classroom, that’s an issue with the learning environment that the professor needs to fix.

REASON THREE: It tempts students to aimlessly browse the internet instead of paying attention (or, “High heels hunting”)

Professor Renzi and other educators are offended by students’ tendencies to shop online, curate social media profiles and catch up on the news during sacred class time. “That’s not a temptation they have when they’re sitting there with a piece of paper in front of them,” he believes. This one’s hard to deny: Students are spending class time browsing NYU Local — keep doing that, by the way! — and selecting high-heels on Zappos. This is breaking news—before the internet, we all know there was nothing else in the classroom to occupy students’ attention.

Oh right, there’s that forgotten world of daydreaming and doodling. Surely you have witnessed entire animated storyboards come to life in rows ahead of you or seen a classmate shade a perfect white-to-gray gradient from the top of his paper to the bottom. And when you look back at your notes from freshman year and see triangles, spirals and missing blocks of text between the transition from dinosaurs to homo-sapiens, surely you’ll think to yourself, “Gee, am I glad I didn’t have the opportunity to use a laptop, or I wouldn’t have produced all of these helpful pictograms!”

The fact is, if we want to be distracted, we will. If the lesson is boring, students dig into whatever does capture their attention and that has never changed. Professor Leibovitz believes the relationship between teacher and student is a contract in which teachers are committed to finding ways to engage students, and in return students come to class with contributions and pay attention. If either side doesn’t do their part, “there’s little that could be done to salvage the relationship.”

But why the hard feelings on iPads but none on sketch pads? Quite simply, because professors are afraid of it: afraid of its potential, frightened it will eclipse academia. Professor Renzi joked that if he were to allow laptops in class, he might as well also host a daily Strawberry Festival outside of his classroom. Like a good jealous boyfriend, educators are always afraid that their lessons will be overshadowed by the outside world. Often, that’s because their lessons are boring.

Digital media scholar and professor Melanie Kohnen, also of the Media, Culture and Communication department, thinks that teachers who enforce a draconian laptop lockdown are “motivated by the fear of losing students’ attention.” She believes that professors must be dynamic and create environments that reinforce the real-world importance of managing digital and physical worlds. Inevitably, students will leave the classroom and engage in any number of media sources. Why should we censor those from the learning environment?

Are there environments where pen and paper work better? Absolutely. Should you take notes in calculus or a chemistry lab using your computer? Probably not. But that doesn’t mean computers don’t have a place in those classes. Literature may be about books and ancient handwritten texts, but it’s also about thoughts which have evolved alongside technology. What technology can contribute to the classroom is an immersive experience. It’s a new, engaging voice in a tired conversation, and it deserves to be heard and used to its fullest. The very first rule of teaching is that you must meet the students where they are; speak the language of your students and they will respond.

People have tried to argue that for $52,000 per year, we should be able to pick the medium we use to absorb and record information. But paying a lot of money doesn’t give us the license to decide how to become educated. It’s an investment in our education — we trust that professors will create a learning  environment that will help us learn and grow, much like how we pay personal trainers to take control of our bodies for the benefit of our health. But if we are to invest in professors, then they must invest in us.

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