The end of another semester, another academic year is here. Once again I have not been able to do all of the things I had on my agenda, and as a result I’m already behind the eight ball for next year’s agenda. I will probably spend too much time working out the bugs from this year to concentrate on brushing up on content for the fall. But then, I am learning that this sort of dilemma comes with the territory. Teaching does not end as the weather turns warmer and the students begin their mass exodus for home. I’m still here, trying to catch up, and the days around this much-depopulated campus seem as busy as ever.
This year has not been without its revelations, however. I did pay attention, particularly to my freshmen. One of the things I noticed was how much this group of students uses technology. Most of the freshmen I had this past year did not take notes the old fashioned way; these students came equipped with laptops and cell phones, making them the most technologically adapted students I have had yet. Very few of these students came with pens and notebooks. On the surface this proficient use of technology in the classroom might be a cause for celebration. During one lecture I made a reference to Suetonius and three students were able to look up who that historical figure was and “introduce” him to the class. In yet another class we were able to collectively visit pictures of ancient Greek amphitheaters and bring history one-step closer to the present. In each case these “revelations” were not planned by me, but were added once I saw that nearly all students were busy clicking away on their keyboards. In one particularly interesting class, we were able to compare information on various web sites, which turned into a discussion on information literacy.
However, this use of technology in the classroom on the part of my students began to wear thin and bother me once the initial novelty passed. The sound of students typing furiously away, trying to catch every word, began to get on my nerves and even became a distraction for me. I began to feel like I was caught in some Kafkaesque secretarial pool, unable to escape and unable to put a stop to the paths of progress technology had opened for us.
There are problems that go along with students using computers to take notes in class. First, the student begins to type so quickly that he or she does not really take in what it is the professor is saying. I believe that the act of handwriting one’s notes forces one to internalize what is being written in a much more effective way than typing. The same goes for writing papers. I asked my students how many of them wrote all or any of their drafts for papers on the computer. They all raised their hands. We had an hour’s discussion on this and I could not convince them that writing out by hand at least the first draft would force them to slow down their thoughts to a manageable pace. Not one of them wanted to take the time to write out any of the drafts. They claimed that since they had so many written assignments it saved much more time to begin by typing out the drafts. I fear that what is being lost is the essential art of revision.
Perhaps the most disturbing student habit I encountered this semester was when two or three of them began taking pictures with their cell phone cameras of the notes we had put on the board. These same students rarely took notes during the semester. Although this bothered me quite a lot, I decided to let the cell phone camera trick slide for the sake of experiment. I wanted to see if these students could retain anything we said in class and make it their own. Now that the semester is over, I can say that they did retain some things, but not everything I thought they should have. But then, what student does? When it comes to critical thinking I found that too many of my students were just not interested and wanted to give me what they thought I wanted. That is, too few were willing to put themselves at risk by thinking. In future classes I will not allow students to take pictures of notes that have been placed on the classroom white board unless that student has a disability that makes it impossible for him or her to use hands.
Technology does have its place in the classroom, and it can enrich the overall experience. Yet, I cannot help but feel that we are all taking a vast shortcut by turning the act of thinking into some kind of automated response. The overall use of technology I witnessed in more than one class this past year seemed to me to be an act of laziness rather than an act of innovation. In the end I felt defeated by technology, not enhanced by it.