In the most famous, most useful, and most unheeded of his essays, George Orwell remarked that "the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts", the way a man will turn to drink because he thinks he's a failure, and then actually become a failure because he has turned to drink. Among the more slovenly phrases to enter the language in the last decade is "continuous partial attention" — corporate doublespeak for not paying attention — and it has led to the foolish thought that it's neither rude nor stupid to surf the web when people are trying to talk to you.
In many universities professors are beginning to voice serious concerns about the consequences of the "wired" classroom, where lecturers must compete with the lure of the Internet for students' attention. I can confirm that it is demoralizing and distressing to look up at an amphitheater and realize that perhaps one laptop user in five is paying attention. Relax, says one of my colleagues. "A student's freedom to think their (sic) own thoughts, to structure their own mental activity, is a far greater good than trying to compel some semblance to attention."
Well, I share Churchill's conclusion that one volunteer is worth ten recruits, and I consider it axiomatic that how you think is more important than what you think. But I wonder how one of my students would feel if he was giving a presentation and looked up to discover my laptop and I structuring our own mental activity. With justification he'd call my professional conduct into question, and this raises the crucial point. We talk a great deal about teaching excellence, as indeed we should, but not nearly enough about student excellence. Why is the balance tilted so heavily to one side of the scale? Why do I have the obligation to speak, and to speak well, while the apostles of digital education inform me that students have no obligation to listen, or to listen well? I'm being paid, of course, but make no mistake: the students are being paid, too, even if they're paying for it. As Bertrand Russell wrote in 1923,
"A boy or girl of eighteen, who has a good school education, is capable of doing useful work. If he or she is to be exempted for a further period of three or four years, the community has a right to expect that the time will be profitably employed."
It is for this reason that the degrees granted by my institution refer not just to rights and privileges but also to obligations. In Ontario alone, more than ten billion dollars of public funding flows into the universities every year. Nationwide, the figure exceeds thirty billion dollars. For every tuition dollar students slap down, taxpayers pay three or four more, and people who work to send others to school can reasonably expect that they're subsidizing students to learn the curriculum they signed up for, as opposed to underwriting the cost of seeing what's new on Facebook.
As always, the question with any teaching innovation is this: are students smarter because of it? We have expended countless billions of dollars on the digital classroom - what proof do we have that those dollars have produced better students? These are empirical questions. Prove to me that students who surf the web during my lectures are better students (and telling me that they think they are isn't proof) and I'll consider it my professional obligation to advise them to do so.
Recently I was confronted with the rather smug argument that if I'm concerned about students surfing the web during my lectures, it's a sign that I need to be more interesting. Well, I'm considered a good lecturer, and have the awards and evaluations to prove it. I can compete with daydreamers and doodlers and with students reading the newspaper. I can't compete with Facebook and Youtube and Call of Duty 4, and neither can you. If I could do that, I'd create a website called grahambroad.com, upload my lectures, and be a billionaire by the end of the year. My challenge to any professor who thinks that she can compete with wireless web is this: put your lectures on Youtube and see how many hits you get. If it's one-tenth of one percent of the number received by a simpering lunatic telling people to leave Britney alone, I'll buy you a beer. A case of beer.