A story made the rounds last week about how various colleges have either banned notebook computers from their classrooms, shut down their wireless networks, or are considering such moves in an effort to keep students focused. This type of knee-jerk reaction reminds me of the sort of spirit that the company Websense kindles amongst its current a prospective customers (see Questionable $178B loss: Employee's fault? Or management's?). In that post, I wrote:
Anybody who has taken Management 101 knows that if you hold employees accountable for achieving documented and measurable goals, that goofing off whether it's through "cyberslacking" (Websense's term) or any other means will simply surface in employee underperformance versus stated goals. If I'm running a company, I want it to be a great place to work — a place where employees can use the Internet as long as they're meeting or exceeding expectations. In that context, I wonder whether cyberslacking crackdown products aren't really crutches for poorly managed companies. Of course, there are other, more legitimate reasons to monitor Internet usage. For example, any misuse that could lead to a lawsuit. An example of that might usage that violates your company's policies regarding sexual harrassment or violence in the workplace.
Fast forward. Apparently, today's classrooms are full of students that are doing everything (checking email, instant messaging, playing online poker, etc.) but paying attention to what the professor is saying. And the professors are upset about it. Just like with the employees that Websense says we need to crack down on, won't the performance of these distracted students be reflected in their grades? And if it isn't, then what does it matter? Anyway, it seems to me as though the problem already has a self-correcting mechanism in place.
Besides, if the professors are such boring lecturers that the students don't want to pay attention, perhaps these colleges should be helping them to be better lecturers. I was recently invited to sit in on a lecture given by Harvard Law School professor Jonathan Zittrain. Not only was WiFi activated in the classroom and not only did every student have their notebook computers cracked open, Zittrain had two students sitting at the front of the classroom popping relevant Web sites up through their notebook computers into the classroom's projection's in near real-time. Speaking of the experience, I wrote:
Zittrain, who co-founded the Berkman Center, is an absolutely brilliant lecturer with a real gift for teaching. It was more like a performance because of his comedic style that kept the class laughing (never at the expense of learning) — especially during his description of the SCO-IBM lawsuit (easy pickin' for someone like him, given all the nutty aspects of the case). I found myself wishing I had teachers like that when I was in college. Then, I was wishing I was in law school. Harvard Law School. His lecture was that inspiring.
OK, so not every school is Harvard and not every lecturer can perform like Jonathan Zittrain. But every lecture is a peformance and the classroom is no different than a movie theatre or a play. If you're boring, you will lose your audience to something more stimulating. End of story.
Finally, to the schools that think turning off their WiFi nets is the answer, ever hear of EVDO? Yah. Turn off the WiFi and trust me, the students will do an end run on you.