University Diaries
A professor of English describes American university life.
Aim: To change things.
Contact UD at: margaret-dot-soltan-at-gmail-dot-com

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Monday, April 17, 2006

From Princeton University's...

...newspaper. [Link when I get to a computer I understand better.]

"Once, while in class, I had an instant messenger conversation with a friend. We didn't really speak about anything important. Somewhere during that conversation, I said to the friend sitting on my left, "Dude, laptops are distracting." A certain grad student, sitting on my right, turned to me, chuckling, and said, "They really are!"

Maybe I'm pissing in the pool here, but I'll admit that if I have a laptop with Internet in class, I am probably not paying too much attention. I don't think that I am alone. Look around McCosh 50 next time you have a class there. Nearly everyone who has a computer in class is using it to take notes. Try the same thing in Friend 101 or Frist 302. Why the difference? McCosh 50 doesn't have wireless.

Laptops are distracting. Laptops with wireless are even more distracting. Yet the University insists on installing wireless in almost every nook and cranny of the school. If Princeton's mission is to educate (which I certainly hope it is), then the proliferation of wireless Internet in classrooms is certainly contrary to that goal. But wireless alone is not the crux of my point; it is representative of a larger phenomenon that we don't put enough thought into how new technology that we adopt will affect Princeton as a learning environment.

Many people have an "Ooh, cool!" reaction when they see a neat bit of technological wizardry. I know I got that feeling when the video iPod came out. I really want one. But I'm not going to buy it because it would be a waste of money and a huge distraction; my old iPod is good enough. It seems to me that Princeton gets that same "Ooh, cool!" feeling about technology on an institutional level and does very little to curb it.

Take for example the recent proposal to introduce Internet TV (IPTV) to campus. The proposed system would deliver some television service to students' computers. Right now, many students do not have TVs and need to go out of their way to watch television. Practically everyone has a computer. The only possible outcome that can come from the introduction of IPTV service is that more students will watch TV.

Representatives of the University will tell you that they took the proposal to the Undergraduate Life Council to gauge student enthusiasm. Let's be honest here. Students can be enthusiastic about things that are not good for them (see also: beer). It is the job of an educational institution to foster an environment that is conducive to education, not to abdicate responsibility for the contours of that environment to the student body.

For me, the most troubling application of technology on this campus is the widespread use of PowerPoint in teaching. Forget for now all the points I might make about how poor a teaching tool PowerPoint is. Forget how hard it is to make useful PowerPoint slides (or read some Edward Tufte). Forget that PowerPoint acts as a crutch for lecturers and allows them to avoid lecturing. Forget that the existence of PowerPoint lecture notes acts as a crutch for students who would prefer not to pay attention. What is of real concern to me is that the existence of downloadable PowerPoint lecture notes simply discourages students from going to class.

Granting arguendo that these notes fully represent the material covered in lecture (I'm sure), I cannot help but think that there is something to be missed by skipping class. If there isn't, then what is the value of a Princeton education? What are we experiencing as Princeton students that cannot be gleaned from downloaded PowerPoints?

Don't mistake me for arguing that we should live as the Amish, without any cool gadgets in our classrooms. It might be that we can have wireless Internet, IPTV and PowerPoint and maintain a strong learning environment. My hope is that, as technology becomes more powerful, ubiquitous and seductive, we will make sensible choices about which new gadgets belong at Princeton and which ones are too costly.

As for myself, after my earlier admission I'll probably have to leave the PowerBook in my room from now on. Damn. Maybe I'll learn something."