Sunday, June 5, 2011


A funny thing: about three years ago I arrived at work to discover that somebody had put a rhinoceros in my classroom. Nobody told me it was going to be there. I didn’t ask for it, either. I just showed up one day and there it was. It’s an enormously disruptive beast, and I spend a lot of time trying to cajole it into a corner. Believe me, I’ve complained. But whenever I do, I get told, “Well, Broad. Get with the times. We all have rhinoceroses in the classroom now. Adjust your teaching style. Deal with it. Work it into your lectures.”  Some say the problem is me.  “Maybe if you were more interesting, students would pay less attention to the rhinoceros.”  Relax. Deal with it. Adapt. Make the flying leap into Rhinoceros Age.

Actually, none of that happened. Instead, somebody decided it would be a great idea to install wireless Internet instead. Now half of the two-thirds of the students who show up for my lectures have something else to do while I’m trying to talk to them. Is that lecture about the Holocaust getting you down? Never fear – here’s a video of a panda bear sneezing. Update your Facebook status. Multiplayer Call of Duty awaits.

Well, we all used to fade out sometimes, didn’t we? I recall doodling and making to-do lists the odd time, and fighting to remain conscious against the sonorous drone of a handful of sonorous droners. But that’s not really the point. Good lecturers can compete with everyday classroom distractions. I personally can blow the student paper or an idle game of hangman out of the water, any day of the week. What I can’t do is compete with Youtube, Facebook, and Call of Duty. If I could do that, I’d create a website called, upload my lecturers, and be a multi-billionaire by the end of the year. They’d make a movie about me, with George Clooney in the starring role. We’ll call it The Asocial Network. But I can’t compete with those things, and for a simple reason: I’m not in the entertainment industry.

A few weeks ago, I had a “eureka” moment while a student was giving a presentation. I should haul out my laptop and phone and start surfing the web and texting while this student is talking, I thought. And then, when the student appeals his grade on the grounds that I wasn’t paying attention, I’ll tell the Powers That Be, “Well - that student should have just incorporated my web surfing and texting into his presentation.”  Nonsense, isn’t it? And yet another example of the double standard (or perhaps lack of standards): we profess to be preparing our students for their professional lives, but we permit them to behave in ways that would be considered highly unprofessional if we were to do it.

Oh, puh-leeze, I can heard the digerati saying. This discussion is so 2007. This generation of students “lives on the Internet” and they communicate by texting. You can’t ask them to stop. 

Oh, yes we can.  Can we all say it together, like at an Obama rally? Yes. We. Can. We ask students to do things they don’t want to do all the time, like write essays, take tests, and read books. Or does anyone think that, if it weren’t for university, they’d be quizzing each other on Plato’s Republic and writing papers about it?

Okay, I admit it. I’m getting on. I blinked and suddenly I was middle-aged fogey. “That lecture was sick!” one of my students said after class a few weeks back. Only later did I learn that “sick” means “good.” And I was just getting used to “bad” being “good.” Now it turns out its bad again.

So let me put the question another way. What have we wrought? PowerPoint. WebCT. E-mail that effectively renders our office door open 24/7. Wired classrooms. Digital databases. WikiLearning. Educational podcasts. Flat-panel displays mounted on nearly every square inch of empty wall space. Tweeting to students, sometimes from the front of the lecture hall. Clickers. And for all that, for all those billions of dollars and millions of labour hours expended, do we have so much as a tiny, tattered, threadbare shred of evidence that our students are smarter than they used to be? Are their essays better researched or written? Are their exams more accurate? Are they more literate? More articulate? Better able to critically assess what they read and learn? And if they are not — and I have searched the pedagogical literature in vain for evidence that they are — then why is the rhinoceros in my classroom?


Graham Broad said...

This early update brought to you by the rhinoceros in my classroom. Unlike the real ones, the one in my class is not endangered.

TJ said...

HA! You think your students are NOT being prepared for the real "professional" world....The "professionals" of this world are surfing on their laptops during meetings too. I was even in a meeting where the presenter answered his cell phone during his presentation to take a call from his daughter!

Anonymous said...

Not all students have the attention span of an ADD toddler on speed. Some of us still sit through lectures and doodle the old-fashioned way when we feel we need to zone out. I abhor texting; it's intruding, annoying, and very little of what I have to say is important enough that I have to say it at that very second in time. I'll wait 1/2 hour and message them on facebook instead xP Honestly, there are still some students who are annoyed with our compatriots when they are clicking beside us like a maniac for WoW or laughing about youtube videos during a lecture on Medieval torture devices (true story). There aren't many of us, but we truly do feel your pain.

Adam said...

Your classes clearly need more pyrotechnics.

Anonymous said...

After five years I can count on one hand the number of times I've seen these devices used in a proper manner. Even those using them to take notes attentively still wander off to facebook and twitter from time to time.

Paper and pen gets it done 100% of the time... And my paper never crashed on me. I'm the most 'techie' person around - - perhaps that's why I can say with confidence that for the majority of students, laptops have no place in the classroom.