Sunday, November 06, 2005

Laptops Are The Devil's Instruments

In my department at work, we have a small crew of college students employed as part-time help to do routine and menials tasks. Five years ago, when I started there, I was told that the kids were "student workers, not worker students", meaning that their studies took precedence over their jobs. During a lull in the action, they could use the workplace as a study hall. Or, if they found that the job was interfering with their class schedule, they could leave without notice, no questions asked. Plenty of college students are always looking for work, and the wages are low so we really do not expect these kids to stick around for any great length of time anyway.

Things have changed in the ensuing five years. Rather than sit down with textbooks and notes during non-peak moments, or taking turns doing research on the office computer (when not being used for work-related purposes, of course), the student workers will whip out a laptop computer and just get right down to business then and there. I wouldn't mind this too much, but the laptop generation seems to come equipped with a lapdog attitude towards its employer, and in some cases is accompanied by a decrease in productivity.

Judging by an article in this morning's P-G, it looks like the scourge of students with laptops is everywhere:

Wireless Internet has become all the rage in college classrooms, with more schools locally and nationwide installing it each year. But schools are starting to learn that the educational advantages of wireless Internet are accompanied by relentless distractions.

Suddenly, students have the ability to transport themselves anywhere the Internet will take them -- whether or not it has anything to do with class.

Or, indeed, with work. Opening a laptop is just the same as opening a notebook was in the old days, when I was a young whippersnapper. What, specifically, might these kids be doing with the laptops in class?

"The problem I have is not with the laptops, per se," said John Soluri, a history professor at Carnegie Mellon. "The problem is that I know that some people use laptops to e-mail, to watch movies, to do whatever, and they're not really using them to take notes."
I know where this man is coming from. I really don't mind our student employees doing something like email, as long as it doesn't distract them when we call upon them to run an errand or whatever. But movies? We had one kid working for us during the summer who always seemed to have a movie on his laptop. I didn't like it, but I didn't want to get rid of him either. He was our best worker. He always did what was asked of him, and received accolades from people in other departments. Watching movies would have been a good reason to fire him, but given the quality of applicants that we had been getting, we would not have been able to find someone of his caliber as a worker.

At Carnegie Mellon, Dr. Soluri acknowledges students could sleep, daydream or doodle long before laptops. But he worries about more substantive distractions to students using laptops and to anyone else who can see their screens.

In other words, it's catching. We haven't had any more movie watchers in our office, but we do have some kids who are so immersed in their laptops that they seem to regard the assignment of a task as an annoyance and an interruption. You can only take the "student worker" dichotomy so far. Are you student or are you worker? On the payroll, you're a worker. You can study, but work comes first. There's too much "I'll do that in a few minutes when I finish this" coming from the kids. The attitudes have gotten worse all of the time.

During a recent statistics class at CMU, one student with a laptop was seen pricing plane tickets and hotel reservations for a trip to Canada, another reviewing the Power Point lecture for a psychology class and a third e-mailing and checking Web sites like Facebook.com. Nearly all of the students with laptops took a cyber detour from strictly class business at some point during the lecture.

But while such activities might strike professors as rude or disrespectful, many students see them as "efficient" or "multi-tasking."

Of course the kids are being rude and disrespectful. They are so caught up in the new technology that a classroom environment seems too quaint for them to take seriously. In all fairness, today's students who are this connected would be better suited to some form of cyber learning rather than traditional classroom attendance. But when they register for classes that require some degree of personal participation, they ought to show proper respect for their professors by putting the laptops away and just paying attention.

In some ways, the practice of "multi-tasking" during class reflects a fundamental difference in how current college students behave -- and learn.

"Students are used to having these multiple channels going," said Geri Gay, a professor of communication and information science at Cornell University. "There's a restlessness that sets in this generation."

Dr. Gay said her research showed that it is sometimes possible for students to concentrate on a lecture while, say, reading news headlines. Once they actually start reading the news story, however, they forget about the lecture.

We do not need a communications professor to tell us this, but she is right, and I am glad that she doesn't come off as an apologist for the laptop generation. Forgive me for sounding like an old fogey, but it is true: Kids today are more restless, less respectful, more self-centered and more easily distracted than in my youth. And the laptop attachment is a symptom of the new, worse attitude.

Lawrence Frolik, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh law school, has also noticed the phenomenon of students treating lectures as somewhat like background music on their iPods.

"They think there's no reason to be a captive in the classroom," he said. "They really believe that downtime can be profitably occupied by e-mail and fantasy football."

Background music! That's a perfect description of their attitude towards work, too. And it is worse at work, since they are being paid for the privilege of part-time employment. Not that they should treat class hours, which they are (presumably) paying for, as time to be used in whatever way they see fit. But they can't be fired from class. Heh.

BTW, in you should ever find yourself needing to retain the counsel of a Pitt law school graduate in a few years, ask if he/she ever used a laptop to do fantasy football in class. If they answer affirmatively, dump them. They will do the same thing when they're sitting in court pleading your case.

At Harvard Law School, some professors have now banned laptops from their classrooms. Ironically, the ubiquity of laptops in Harvard's classes was featured in the 2001 movie "Legally Blonde," in which Reese Witherspoon's character gets into school there and finds herself laptop-less in a classroom full of them.
I can't believe I am saying this, but I would prefer a class full of laptop-less bimbos to a class full of laptop snobs. Hollywood is still the land of hopes and dreams!

In the end, it is the laptop addict who suffers:

"For the students who are susceptible to being distracted by their own machines, that's their loss as far as I'm concerned," said Joel Friedman, a professor at Pitt law school visiting from Tulane University. "The downside [of laptops] is minimal."
Nothing like a little self-immolation to teach kids not to play with fire, eh?

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