Friday, March 12, 2010

Laptops in Classrooms - Duties to the Whole Body

At the Inside Higher Ed website, a discussion is occurring over whether professors should ban laptops in their classrooms, a practice that I have long employed in my own classes. Here are some basic considerations that I think underlie this discussion:

1. Education is by definition an engaged activity, not a passive consumer product. The concern about laptop usage is a concern about the obligation of engagement, a proper concern for a college instructor and students. It is ultimately not about the entitlements of students.

2. Notions that students must be provided with recorded lectures so they can take notes outside class (and what are the chances that will happen?) so they can surf the web while in the class seems to beg the question as to why they should come to class in the first place. If they must compulsively engage in distracting activities while purportedly trying to learn, why not simply take an online class where there are no real expectations of student engagement in the first place?

3. It is not the duty of the instructor to capture and hold the student’s attention. That’s entertainment. Colleges such as mine with three major theme parks right down the road can never compete with the entertainment industry. Rather, it is the duty of the instructor to prepare for and direct the class. It is the student’s duty to engage the class, a factor that regularly gets lost in this discussion. Universitas means the whole body, all parties engaged with mutual duties to the whole body, not provision of consumer goods and services by a seller to a buyer.

4. There is no entitlement to the use of any form of technology any time and place individuals want to use it. This is a lesson in delayed gratification as well as consideration for and obligations to others. Anyone who cannot go 50 minutes without playing with their electronic toys has a real problem.

5. As a substitute for laptop note taking, why not simply provide students with outlines at the course website that they can download prior to class and complete during the lecture? That way they don’t have to write down every word and the outline indicates what the lecturer thinks is important. Again, the obligation here lies with the student.

6. Similarly, why not provide students with documents such as film reviews and group presentation evaluations prior to class online and make the student responsible for downloading them and bringing them to class? This saves departments money on copying and inculcates a notion of the student’s obligation to the whole body in the process.

7. I’m a recovering lawyer and I teach a class on the philosophy of law. I find nothing in the Constitution that guarantees the right to use any form of technology in the classroom. Indeed, if anything, the requirement that students be fully attentive in class is a real life lesson in constitutionally permissible regulations of time, place and manner which our courts have recognized since the Constitution was created.

8. I also find nothing oppressive in requiring students to be present, prepared and attentive during class. Indeed, I find the unwillingness to require this a failure of duty on the part of the instructor. Universities teach many things both explicitly and implicitly. Teaching students by praxis that they have no duties to anyone other than themselves is a moral failure in my view and bodes poorly for the future of our society as a whole.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.

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