A Losing Battle

Almost a year ago, I was blasted in these pages for suggesting that professors should not make classroom rules they can’t enforce, especially governing the use of electronic devices.

“You’re not teaching the students anything, they’re not learning anything,” wrote one reader. Said another, “The author acts as if you should just let all their bad behavior go.” Several chimed in to affirm that they had banned all use of cellphones and laptops in their classrooms, gleefully boasting about the strictness of their rules and the severity of the consequences. They implied, or even stated outright, that by failing to take a similar approach I was contributing to the delinquency of America’s youth and the decline of Western civilization.

In the first place, as I’ve written elsewhere, I’ve never been inclined to run my classroom that way. Moreover, as I noted in last month’s Two-Year Track column, the “youth” that I’m supposedly leading down the primrose path are not really youth. In my community-college classes, at least, many of them are full-fledged adults, with jobs and families and lives outside of college.

As an adult with responsibilities of my own, I always have my cellphone with me, even during meetings—set on vibrate, to be sure, but if I got a text from my wife saying that my son had had a fender-bender or that the washing machine was flooding the basement, I would certainly respond. In fact, I would probably get up and leave. Why should I expect my adult students to behave any differently?

But the main point the electronics police don’t seem to understand is that they are fighting a battle that they are bound, in time, to lose. More and more students are using their laptops for nearly everything these days, including taking notes in class. And a cellphone is no longer just a cellphone. It’s a microcomputer of its own, often containing important information—calendars, notes, even downloaded books—that students need to have with them in class. The same is true of a tablet computer, but even more so: It functions like a combination giant smartphone and mini-laptop.

Sure, all those devices can be misused, to text friends or check Facebook or surf the Net. So what. I used to sit in the back of the class and read Lord of the Rings or use my pencil and notepad to draw unflattering caricatures of my teachers. How are today’s illicit activities so different?

To top it all off, textbook publishers are now marketing aggressively to handheld device users. My son, who is taking some college courses as a dually enrolled high-school student, told me that most of his classmates have their textbooks downloaded onto their smartphones and iPads and Kindles. Since the e-version of a textbook is often half the price of the print version (or less), professors can hardly object without appearing churlish.

For that matter, many professors are playing along, putting their course materials on the Web and/or requiring students to use online tutorials such as MyMathLab. How can we tell them not to use their electronic devices in class, when many of the resources we’re giving them cannot be used any other way?

The fact is, we can’t. And if we try, we’re not only fighting a losing battle, but we’re making ourselves look a little silly and old-fashioned in the process. Within five years, if not sooner, the typical classroom will look much different than it did five years ago, when the majority of the students sat there, pen in hand, textbook open to the side, dutifully taking notes on paper.

Instead, virtually all students will be taking notes and reading their assignments on a laptop. Or a smartphone. Or a tablet. Or something new, maybe some sort of hybrid device that hasn’t even been invented yet.

As classroom teachers, we can either get on board that particular train or get run over by it.

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