I’m not sure I agree with the writer from the New York Times who suggested that technology is turning all of us into Zombies, but I saw a few of the living dead in my classes last semester.
Let me emphasize a few. Most of my students were lively and engaged; most participated in productively and imaginatively. A few, however, spent every class period staring at their computer screens. They barely even lifted their heads. They didn’t seem to bother the other students (the infamous “cone of distraction” that some lecturers have noticed) because they generally sat in the back or along the side and tilted their screens so they were not visible to others. Their midterm papers, however, showed no evidence whatsoever of familiarity with the material in spite of regular attendance. The papers did, interestingly, suggest that they were pretty decent students overall: they could write complete sentences, organize a paragraph, and interpret a piece of writing. They utterly lacked, however, any of the contextual coordinates that classroom discussion so painstakingly provides, and thus made outrageous errors in their reading.
So you’re probably thinking: why do you let them bring laptops to class? Just solve the problem by banning the laptops.
Of course I considered this and have done it past semesters, but I’m not convinced that this is the best solution. As mentioned, the zombie cohort was tiny; two to three students per class at most. Many other students, by contrast, used their laptops to take notes. It’s hard to object to this. Like these students, I find note-taking on a keyboard much easier and digital storage more congenial than the paper kind. Further, in these challenging economic times, some students download the reading material instead of buying the books: it’s pretty easy to find a digital version of Robinson Crusoe or Gulliver’s Travels.
I was able to bring one of these zombies back into the world of the living. I wrote to each of them that I thought their web-surfing was undermining their work. One stopped coming to class. One subsequently looked up a few times. One recognized the truth of this analysis, went cold turkey, and wrote a much-improved final paper. (So maybe when zombies learn to think for themselves they will no longer be condemned to endlessly demand other people’s brains.)
There has been much discussion in higher ed reporting about whether or not to allow laptops in the classroom, but it seems to me that we need a more subtle negotiation than simply being ‘for’ or ‘against’ it. An on/off switch for the wireless internet would be great, but my classroom doesn’t have one. I think overall that technology has improved my classes and I know that students have always found ways to distract themselves. It might not even be fair to call them zombies: they could be doing engaged intellectual work on their laptops. The problem is that they are doing it while I am trying to explain the difference between Whigs and Tories, so they end up not even knowing what they don’t know but at the same time have the illusion that they are learning the material because, after all, they came to class. So as I reflect on what kinds of policies to include for next semester, I wonder how others have addressed this issue.