Monday, February 15, 2010

Thinking Without a Net

Approaching sixty and what is officially considered old age (politely called, senior citizenship), I am amazed at how much the university has changed in my lifetime. I imagine that those who were alive at the time the printing press was invented might have felt the same way. 

When I was first hired in 1993, few students had computers.  Laptops were prohibitively expensive; cellular phones were not widely used; I had a very bulky and unreliable one I kept in the car in case I should break down as I drove through the woods on my daily commute. Palm Pilots and Blackberries were just beginning to gain popularity. My department chair-to-be made sure that I negotiated with the administration for a good computer and laser printer. It was a big deal. 

In the classroom, I had to persuade my students to get e-mail accounts. Since few students had their own computers, few had made use of the then still-clunky Internet. We had overhead projectors, as well as televisions and video cassette and DVD players. Digital projectors came along perhaps five years ago? They are still very expensive and few enough have become proficient in their use that those who wish to use them to teach can still do so. In my department, there are three; so far, we have not needed another one. A fourth one belongs to a professor who bought it with his own money.

Questions we could not have imagined a decade ago now demand our attention. The Internet has redefined plagiarism. Ever a classroom problem, plagiarism, is now high-tech.  The sellers of student papers are now on-line: Students can find a paper on almost anything you want on the web. The downside of this for them is that professors can also pursue the plagiarists; many plagiarists can be foiled by typing in a sample of the paper into a search engine. Sometimes we get lucky and we find a match. Then again, some give themselves away through sheer carelessness.  I once had a hockey player whose paper seemed suspiciously literate for him until I got to the last page, which had a copyright from the company he’d bought it from. Busted!

Teaching the students to be careful of what they find on-line is a new area of study. I once found a gorgeous site on the ancient Maya until I started to look at it carefully and saw that the site manager had conflated information about the Maya, Aztec and Inca. I wrote to him detailing his errors, and received the cheerful reply that he didn’t know anything about the pre-Colombian indigenous peoples but he had found lots of nice pictures to use, and he had taken advantage of a snowy holiday weekend to throw it together. When will there be a body of law for malpractice on the Internet?

The budget of the university has been skewed by the costs of the computers, not only computers for the faculty and administrators but also for computer banks for the students throughout the university. While these machines get a lot of punishment, there is far more insidious expense.  Developing computer technology renders them obsolete far too quickly.  Now there are clickers in classroom use which enable students to participate in large classes in which previously, they could not.

E-mail now consumes a fair amount of our interaction with our students. Not only do they send me notes when they are ill but they also ask questions and make comments that they might have been too shy to make in class.

One use of computers that makes me uneasy is the use of laptops in the classroom. How do I know they are taking notes instead of sending e-mail to their friends or preparing for another class?  I just have to ignore them. We make choices not to be police officers in the class all the time. This is one of my instances.  And then there are the students who are on their cell phones texting. When I see someone doing it during class, I ask them not to but on more than one occasion, I’ve had students walk out in a huff when I’ve asked them to stop texting.

It’s a curious thing about sitting in a classroom. Many students seem to think that their behavior is invisible to the professor, or that we can’t hear them whispering. I wish I couldn’t; it is distracting and I hate to stop class to ask them to stop. Invariably, I forget what I was lecturing about.

The nature of the university library is changing as well in response to the new technologies. Library renovations now include adding to the number of electrical outlets available for laptops, and a library commons which adds tables with electric outlets so that a group of students can meet and discuss with their laps plugged in. Furthermore, students can now Twitter reference librarians for help with reference questions.

Of course, we cannot ignore the tremendous difference that the Internet has made to the access to journals, newspapers, etc. Now, when I want to see something that appeared in the New York Times a hundred years ago, I can access it within minutes on the web. No longer do I have to scour the local libraries to see if someone has a complete set of microfilms of the New York Times, or make a trip to another city that might have one.

We have come a long way from the days when I started college with an electric typewriter and a $100 factory-reconditioned stereo system. I love much of the new technology even though it makes me feel that I am running in a weird steeple-chase trying to keep up and in some cases, drag my students along; in others, trying to keep up with them.

What I worry about is that the technology is overshadowing the substance of what we teach. Their handwriting is already almost completely unreadable because they are typing everything. Twitter and texting discourage correct spelling. Do u no what I meen? They rarely consult books, choosing to get all their information from the Internet and that is changing the nature of undergraduate research. More information is available at the same time that misinformation floods the Internet like a Red Tide contaminating the local shellfish after a hard rain. For serious researchers, it is an exhilarating trip even though it is harder to teach students how to discriminate. 

It is quite an adventure. I can’t wait to see what happens next.   

1 comment:

  1. 1. Students are chatting on their laptops in class. They just are. We're too ADD now to only do one thing at a time. 2. Internet research is unreliable but anything that has been printed in a book feels like it can't be right anymore because too much time has passed and new discoveries are made all the time. Maybe that is not actually the case with a centuries dead culture, but that is the prevailing bias against books. Oh, and they are a lot more work.