We are reminded of the early, heady, days of the internet when
university campuses were just beginning to provide WiFi access to the
school network instead of requiring a tethered Ethernet cable.  Students,
of course, abused the new wireless freedom by bringing their laptops to
class and surfing the internet when they should’ve been taking notes.

One
Ivy League professor, fed up with the inattention of several of his
students, would start each class by picking up a push broom and
whacking at the WiFi repeater node attached to the wall above him to
prevent his students from wireless surfing.

When the
WiFi node was reinstalled by the next class, the professor would, once
again, pick up his stick and beat the repeater off the wall.

The
fight between wood and ether continued all semester with the professor
getting a weekly repair bill from the university IT department for
replacing the damaged WiFi node.  The professor religiously fed that
dunning notice into his paper shredder.

We cannot help
but leap for the heavens in admiration of that sort of well-intentioned
university Luddite fighting against the inevitable wave of change.  We
have always loved our Paper Tigers, our windmill combatants and those
that choose to save the village by poking a finger in a dike to prevent
the flooding of history.

Here’s how one professor at
Colorado University currently handles the indelicate negotiation
between student performance and tempting technology:

Associate Professor Diane Sieber
led a seminar last month for her colleagues at CU on how to handle
laptops in the classroom, so that professors have options beyond
banning laptops or changing their teaching methods to try and compete
with Facebook.

Sieber lets her students write “social
contracts” each semester to help govern the classroom. She is the
director of the Herbst Program of Humanities for Engineers, which
teaches writing, ethics and “digital citizenship” to engineering
undergraduates. Technology-related rules are consistently high on her
classrooms’ lists, with students asking that laptops be used solely for
academic purposes and cell phones be banned, Sieber said.

“They ask their classmates ‘Please don’t watch movies on your computer, because if I’m behind you I can’t focus,” she said.

Last
fall, Sieber had 96 students in one of her courses and she took note of
which ones were frequently using their laptops. After the first test,
she alerted the 17 students who used their laptops intensely that, on
average, they performed 11 percent worse than their peers who weren’t
glued to computer screens. The number of students on laptops eventually
dwindled to a half dozen, and the test scores of students who stopped
using their computers during class shot up, according to Sieber.

We cringe at that example of Colorado University coddling of student feelings when instructors know in their bones it is better for everyone involved in the classroom to ban laptops outright and to always beat WiFi nodes into bloody bits.

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