10 Years of Educational Change and Stagnation

I wondered how being a student would be different now from 10 years ago. The basics lecturing are still the same. Good instructors are still good instructors. My approach to education has definitely changed, but that's a topic for a different post. I was more concerned about technology. Would pervasive WiFi kill my ability to concentrate in class? Would I check my RSS feeds every time a lecture got boring?

By and large, not as much as I had feared. I do slip occasionally, but my method for handling a boring lecture is about the same now as it was back then: parallel process by doing problem sets in class. I can get more done in class now because the range of projects I can take on from the chair is larger. But I have so much to do that I can't really imagine firing up google reader just because I can't afford the time hit.

I have developed one technique to ensure focus in class, though. When I need to edit text (either by writing a paper at home or taking notes in class), I use OmmWriter. It's an idiosyncratic little text editor with almost no features. There isn't even search and replace. What it does do very well is to present an unbroken full-screen editing surface with no interface elements. You can't really do anything BUT write. If you try to alt-tab over to Firefox to check email the entire text editor disappears, taking with it any pretense that one is "multitasking". This may be the best program ever for dealing with the pervasive distractions which kill creativity and focus.

When I want to crank the text-editing focus up to 11, I'll disable WiFi. This is hard, but it does extend battery life.

Some professors have a different approach to the problem, which is to ban all laptop use during class. I can see where they are coming from. They want us paying attention and not updating our Twitter status. It's understandable, but also completely barbaric. I type 90WPM and can do it heads-up without even thinking. My written word requires looking at the page, is 4x slower, near-illegible, not searchable, and rather difficult to back up. Which would you rather use for taking notes in class? I find it puzzling that I am forcibly relegated to using pre-Gutenberg technology while simultaneously learning about innovation.

So there it is: less has changed than I imagined.


  1. Karl, you'll find that not all of the professors ban laptops, and some of them have even incorporated them into lecture methods. It's not as widespread as it could be, but it is happening.
    So there is hope!

  2. As someone currently *teaching* a college class, I don't like laptops. I'm an interactive instructor. I care more about people thinking and responding than whether they're typing down the prior person's response. I use the classroom to get people thinking, learning material, and applying it to our own lives. The kind of detailed note taking for which 90WPM is useful simply isn't appropriate for my class.

    I find the constant clicking distracting, ESPECIALLY when we're doing a case discussion or something for which, frankly, there just isn't anything being said that could inspire that much typing. It's clear that whatever people are doing, it's not taking notes.

    Lastly, Karl, you may not spend your laptop time surfing the web, but others do. I work hard to prepare a significant learning experience, and I show up and give the class my full attention. I'm just not interested in teaching people who won't give me the same courtesy. Adjuncts get paid just about nothing, and if the psychic rewards aren't there, I'll leave faster than you can say "Blue Screen of Death."