pjk at design.eng.yale.edu
Sat Jan 4 20:41:00 EST 2003
Mail*Link¨ SMTP Attention Deficits
My colleague Nathan Price, who sent me this article, finds it
disturbing that people don't understand that "multitasking" is a
euphemism for "short attention span." I think it is actually even
worse, it is an actively induced attention deficit disorder.
In assertiveness training in a meeker world of long ago, one of the
exercises was not answering the phone. That now needs to be
generalized to exercises in just doing one thing at a time--well.
The only true multitasking worth practicing is listening to the
voices of a fugue, e.g. the JS Bach Trio Sonatas for organ.
Professors Vie With Web for Class's Attention
January 2, 2003
By JOHN SCHWARTZ
Universities are rushing toward a wireless future,
installing networks that let students and the faculty surf
the Internet from laptop computers in the classroom, in the
library or by those ponds that always seem to show up on
the cover of the campus brochure.
But professors say the technology poses a growing challenge
for them: retaining their students' attention.
In a classroom at American University in Washington on a
recent afternoon, the benefits and drawbacks of the new
wireless world were on display. From the back row of an
amphitheater classroom, more than a dozen laptop screens
were visible. As Prof. Jay Mallek lectured graduate
students on the finer points of creating and reading an
office budget, many students went online to Blackboard.com,
a Web site that stores course materials, and grabbed the
day's handouts from the ether.
But just as many students were off surfing. A young man
looked at sports photos while a woman checked out baby
photos that just arrived in her e-mailbox.
The screens provide a silent commentary on the teacher's
attention-grabbing skills. The moment he loses the thread,
or fumbles with his own laptop to use its calculator,
screens flip from classroom business to leisure. Students
dash off e-mail notes and send instant messages. A young
man who is chewing gum shows an amusing e-mail message to
the woman next to him, and then switches over to read the
online edition of The Wall Street Journal.
Distraction is nothing new. As long as there have been
schools, students have whispered, passed notes and even
gazed out the window and daydreamed. The arrival of laptop
computers, however, introduced new opportunities for
diversion, and wireless introduces an even broader range of
distraction, said Dylan Brooks, a senior broadband and
wireless analyst at Jupiter Communications.
"They could have played solitaire or Minesweeper before,"
Mr. Brooks said. "Now they can do that or seven million
other games, or watch a full-length feature film."
This is especially galling to law professors, many of whom
still live in the world depicted in "The Paper Chase," the
1973 film in which an imperious Prof. Charles W. Kingsfield
Jr. held his students in terrified thrall.
"This is an addictive thing that hurts the students
themselves," said Ian Ayres, a professor at the Yale Law
School who opposes much of the Internet's entry into the
classroom, saying that computer use is rude and that other
students are "demoralized" by seeing their peers' attention
"When you see 25 percent of the screens playing solitaire,
besides its being distracting, you feel like a sucker for
paying attention," Professor Ayres said.
Unless law students are fully engaged in the class, he
said, they miss out on the give and take of ideas in class
discussion and do not develop the critical thinking skills
that emerge from "deeply tearing apart a case."
Professor Ayres tried to prohibit all Internet use in his
classroom. The students "went ballistic," he said, and
insisted that their multitasking ways made them more
productive and even more alert in class.
Lately, he said, he has loosened the restrictions, telling
students they could surf from the back rows, so others
would not be distracted.
One professor at a law school in Texas became so upset by
the level of student distraction in 2001 that he took a
ladder to school, climbed up to reach the wireless
transmitter in his classroom - and disconnected it. The
students protested. The administration told him to plug it
back in. But the point was made, he said, and he regained
the attention of the class.
In 2002, he told his students that they could not use
laptops in his class at all, even for taking notes.
"It has made an enormously positive difference to shut
those computers off," he said.
Today's college students are a truly wired generation. A
study in 2002 by the Pew Internet and American Life Project
in Washington found that 86 percent of students have gone
online, compared with 59 percent of the general population.
Although the study did not focus on wireless technology,
the authors did delicately predict that "issues readily
apparent with the spread of cellphones, such as etiquette
and distraction, are likely to emerge as students are able
to access the Internet anywhere, including in classrooms."
Dozens of colleges are going wireless, including
Dartmouth, Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, the University of
California at San Diego and the University of Minnesota.
The wireless rollout at American University is especially
ambitious, because it integrates cellphone coverage into a
single data-delivery network that can deliver messages to
laptops, handheld devices and telephones anywhere on the
84-acre campus. The university plans to stop offering
traditional phone service in its dormitories eventually.
In any building, the wireless access ports are likely to be
there, looking a little like the top half of a Lava Lamp,
painted white and stuck upside-down to the ceiling.
The director of e-operations at the university, Carl
Whitman, said being early to the wireless world created an
advantage in attracting students who demand the latest
technology and "becomes a plus for us."
Matthew Pittinsky, founder and chairman of Blackboard Inc.,
the large Internet education company that puts Professor
Mallek's class materials online, said wireless access had
"made higher education much more of a 24/7 educational
environment than ever before," with instant access to
classroom materials and research resources and a growing
potential for collaborative study.
Mr. Pittinsky said the greatest power of wireless showed up
in the dorm, the library and the commons. "There's less of
an obvious use for wiring the classroom," where the
benefits have to be balanced against the distraction, he
At American University, Professor Mallek said the benefits
of the technology in his classroom far outweighed the
problems. He ran the pilot project at the business school
that helped the American decide to put in a campuswide
network and said he had grown used to students' flipping
"It's a new type of social commentary, to hear clicking,"
he said. "It's an audible vote."
He suggested that it might even be making him a better
teacher. He takes the threat of losing his students to
e-mail and online newspapers as a challenge to keep
lectures interesting and lively.
"As a professor," he said, "if you are not productively
engaging them, they have other opportunities."
Mr. Whitman, the director of e-operations, said he was
testing new programs that might address some of the
problems of online distraction. A system that takes the
locations of students into account could be used to set
rules that varied from place to place. Any use of the
Internet might be acceptable in the library or the dean's
office, he said, "but if you're downstairs in Jay's
classroom, you could not surf the Internet or you could
surf the Internet but only go to CNN.com for in-class
Joseph Sun, a first year M.B.A. student in Professor
Mallek's class, takes notes with pen and paper. He owns a
laptop but does not take it to class. Although it "comes in
handy to look up an article or quote during discussion,"
Mr. Sun said, he has to resist "the temptation to surf the
Net during lectures."
Students say they are finding a balance in the classroom
between the good uses of online technology and its
temptations. Tetse Ukueberuwa, a major in environmental
studies at Dartmouth, said, "Over all, it's a great thing,"
being able to check e-mail messages and conduct online
research anywhere on her campus.
Ms. Ukueberuwa said she preferred to take notes by hand,
however, saying: "I feel I'm more in touch with what the
teacher is saying. You're looking at the teacher instead of
looking at your computer."
As a junior, though, she realizes that she may be
"old-fashioned." Every incoming class, she said, seems
"more technologically advanced" than the last.
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