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Should Classrooms Be Arcades?

By Professor Doom

Ah, the tippy-tap of electronics…it’s more representative of the sound of a classroom than chalk on the board, at least nowadays. When I started teaching, a “cell phone” was the size of a tool chest, and all it did was allow phone calls. Now, my students carry tiny devices of such power that calling them “phones” is about as accurate as referring to cars as “seats”.

Students love their devices, and it’s quite common to have 10% or more of the class texting away (if not outright playing games) during class. Yes, one can put “no cell phones” on the syllabus, but try to toss a student from a class he’s paying thousands of dollars to take and you get a visit from the Dean in short order. It can be done, but it’s a risk most faculty are, quite reasonably, unwilling to take.

I’m a firm believer in verbal abuse and sarcasm as learning tools, and I use them to reduce the use of electronics in my courses, rather than the “draconian” method of kicking students out of class.

I see a student on a laptop tapping away, and I chide him for checking for updates on…the laptop closes quickly, I promise you.

A student texting as I prove a theorem? I applaud the student for wanting to share the information with his friend in such a timely manner. The texting stops in short order (often to start up again in a few minutes, but I do what I can).

Yet another cell phone ringing, interrupting what I have to say? I dance to the music, again chastising the student for exploiting my UDD—“Uncontrollable Dancing Disorder.”

And, yes, I still got complaints from the Dean about my “poor treatment” of students. I’m really not a monster—I don’t particularly penalize students that don’t come to class in the first place, after all, so if they really want to play games, they can do so…just not in my class. I don’t want these types of students teaching the other students not to pay attention to what’s going on, is all.

Education is so different today. Decades ago, it was understood that students were young, and that institutions of higher education were responsible for at least trying to keep them from hurting themselves through the foolish behavior that the young are most susceptible to. There were curfews, (enforced) morality codes, dress codes, behavior codes, (enforced) study times…education was not such a joke.

Today of course, the “customer as student” paradigm means that administrators, rather than feel responsible to the young, instead do what they can to fleece the young, and that absolutely involves encouraging the students to hurt themselves so that future student loan checks may flow in. So, it’s very, very, hard to remove a student paying $10,000 a semester from the classroom—“he’s paying for it, he has a right to be there” sayeth the Dean. The other students take note, of course, and that’s why there are always students clicking away in class now.

But decades ago, when the Dean was an educator instead of a money-sucking bureaucrat? The student would be punted, at least for a day, and would figure out not to bring his toys to class (and the other students, too, would get the idea). The argument would go “the student is paying $10,000? It’s wrong to let him throw away that money by not paying attention in class, and it sends a bad message to the other students. Remove him, so that both he and the other students get the message for how to behave in class.” It was a simpler time back then, I guess.

Telltale fast clicks of laptop arrow keys gave away my distracted student from 30 feet off.

So engrossed was he in a 1980s role-playing game that he barely noticed when I leaned in to whisper how entirely inappropriate his behavior was…

A recent article where a professor caught a student outright playing a computer game in class, and getting only the mildest of chastisement for such ostentatious misbehavior, really brings the point home in how much higher education has changed.

We need a culture change to manage our use of technology, to connect when we want to and not because we psychologically depend on it. Enough is enough. We need strategies for unplugging when appropriate to create a culture of listening and of dialogue.

---hmm, we need a whole “culture change” to fix this problem? It really seems like there’s an easier way…

The professor in the article presents a huge stream of psychological woo to rationalize the student’s inappropriate behavior, justifying, as much as possible, why such behavior is now de rigueur in today’s classrooms of higher education.

Now, maybe, the solution to all the texting and game-playing in the classroom is to give each student years of psychotherapy to reduce their dependency upon technology.

But, honest, there really was a time when there was enough common sense in higher education to enforce just a little discipline. If there was a way to bring this type of common sense back, these types of goofy problems would just go away.


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