Should the web be allowed in class?

There’s a fantastic discussion on metafilter about whether college students should be able to use the web during class time.

The original question by quodlibet was this:

How do I keep my students off the internet during lecture? Today, in the class I TA – I had about 5 students on facebook, another 2 texting, a bunch checking their email, 1 playing tetris, 1 reading the sports, and another reading the nytimes. It drove me mad. One on facebook was even looking at pictures of girls in their bras.

After class, one student had the nerve to tell me he should be allowed to be on the internet in class because he takes good notes and has an A in the class (if he was in my section, trust me – he would no longer have an A).

All of this frustration (and I teach at an Ivy League school) – got me thinking, when I’m the head instructor – what can I do? Our university doesn’t have the option to turn off the internet. Do I just ban laptops? Is there anything else I can do?

A fascinating thread ensued (about 120 comments), where various professors and former college students chime in with a wide array of opinions, tactics and philosophies.  It’s some thoroughly interesting reading if you have any opinion on this at all.

I offered the following as a post in the thread:

First, there is a strong academic argument that lectures are an inappropriate teaching method much of the time – it’s just that it’s the only method many professors know or are willing to try. Bligh’s What’s The Use of Lectures? clearly documents the research supporting this claim, and it’s bizarre so few people have ever heard of this book. It is a must-read for any TA or Professor or Academic department head, as it swiftly summarizes the limitations of lecturing and explores the alternatives, all based on well documented studies and research. It’s a well written but academic summation of lectures and their alternatives.

Second, most people who lecture are awful – the bar is low – and in the case of professors, they are lecturing to people who are captives. The feedback loop in most universities is weak regarding presentation skills, and sometimes regarding teaching skills altogether. Many professors in many universities have never been trained to teach, yet have an arrogance about how good they are, and faith in untested theories about how it is supposed to be done. Theories based heavily on their own experiences as students. People who lecture professionally are nowhere near as good at lecturing as they think they are, and never put themselves in a situation where it’s possible to discover that gap.

Third, before anyone makes claims about “this generation” the question remains: among the teachers in any school, in any era, some will do a better job of keeping students attention than others – how do these teachers do it? And can they teach those skills / attitudes / behaviors to the other teachers? Even if students have brain implants straight into the Matrix, some teachers will do better than others and that’s the framework any teacher should be starting from.

Fundamentally this problem is ageless. The web is not going away in the same way, despite teachers wishes, daydreamable windows, chewing gum, and passing notes, persisted. It has always been very hard to keep the attention of any group of people, at any age, at any time. And the people who have tended to be successful in overcoming these challenges are the ones who either 1) develop true teaching and persuasive skills, or 2) partner with their students in finding a mutually beneficial solution, rather than stumbling backwards into inflicting a fantasy of obedience on them.