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Saturday, March 05, 2005

Driven to Distraction

Apologies for the lack of posting - the wide array of tests and schoolwork I have had to endure hasn't changed one whit from my last semester. This week will be no better, but I figured it was time to make sure that my Blogger space was put to good use.

A subject that has recently come up around my school and, apparently, others is the usage of campus WiFi networks during classtime by students. Professors, especially those of the "old school" of pencils and notepads, are voicing their displeasure at the idea that students are using the wireless networks to do things other than research or downloading class-related materials. Namely, instant messaging, e-mail, doodling, or playing solitaire. Before I go further, let me state for the record that the majority of professors I've had have been very interesting to learn from, and that I am in no way trying to paint all of them with the "Boring" brush.

All of those can be considered fair game, but there's a deeper problem that professor's need to address - why students are doing that in the first place. I can tell you, in plain language - you're making this mind-numbingly boring, guys. Sure, not all subjects are going to fascinate and excite everyone who takes them but that doesn't mean a professor shouldn't try.

A student shouldn't be made to feel as if they're serving a prison term by taking Ethnic American Literature and having a professor harp on and on about a subject as if they are the only ones that can truly appreciate and enjoy the subject matter and that the student could only hope that some of this highfalutin knowledge rubs off on them. That's not how learning works - a student isn't there to act as a tape recorder, one that is expected to playback everything noted in class on tests. If I wanted that, I'd set my laptop to do speech-to-text, leave for an hour and, assuming my laptop isn't stolen, pick up an entire lecture's worth of notes and have saved an hour of time by reading on a subject that actually interests me.

Learning has always been about involvement, from the start of history. Do you think cavemen intrinsically knew not to burn themselves on the fire they created? Of course not - many torched themselves before they figured out that, hey, maybe poking around in this fire business isn't so smart for our personal well-being! Professor's are treating their job as more of posting where they belt out a bunch of lines, assign work, and dismiss class. This shouldn't happen - what are we learning, outside of a bunch of text to recite later? Not terribly much, I submit.

With a WiFi enabled network in campus buildings, at least the tools exist for a student to actually further their interest in a subject while in class, where they can look up mentioned material and ask further questions so that, not only do they know more details, but that everyone else does. Textbooks only cover so much (of the little that professors commonly cover of those overpriced monstrosities), but Googling or consulting a Wiki entry can add a lot of context for otherwise "flat" material. Taking something away because it "might" be distracting is reaching a little too far, frankly. If we're going to go that way, I submit that everyone where blue jeans and white t-shirts, because anything else just might be too distracting to others if they wear different colors, cuts, or makes. Can't have pens, pencils, or colored notebook paper - they may cause someone to engage in the despicable act of doodling, or provide something more interesting to look at then the wall behind the professor's head. Can't have textbooks, because someone might be transfixed in their shcok that some people still lick their finger before turning a page (horrors!), or they may flip a page too hard, causing a flapping noise. If I wanted parenting, I'm not going to look to a professor to do that for the "good of the classroom" (as if these are fiefdoms to them) - I'll go home on a weekend and get an earful there.

If a student is being flagrantly obvious or obnoxious in their distracting behavior, then the obvious move would be to tell them to take a hike - exert a little peer pressure on them to get them to cut their foolishness out. People need to stop being crippled by this horrendous fear of hurting someone's feelings by telling someone to stop doing something that is being mighty distracting. If it bothers you, and they're not making a move to stop after respectfully asking that they do so, then be the bigger person and move somewhere where it won't bother you or take the next step up. Don't try and make this a blanket-ban-scale problem when it otherwise serves a useful purpose to others.

Professors have a lot more to worry about than WiFi networks in the classroom if students are doing IMs and e-mail - they may have to rethink how they teach a class so that students are more focused on them rather than what web site has the best sales. WiFi is a good thing, and shouldn't be restricted because the few (or, in a worst case scenario, the majority) are driven to distraction in a classroom.
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