I am sitting in a classroom at Harvard Law School, and the professor is giving a fascinating lecture about the Federal Rules of Evidence and computer files. Nevertheless, I’m having a hard time keeping focused: my eyes keep wandering over to the fast-paced game of solitaire the student next to me is playing on her $3,000 laptop with its bright 15-inch screen. Other days, I’ve seen students watching feature-length DVDs-with subtitles turned on so they don’t have to wear headphones.Talk about misplaced priorities. Computers may have profoundly influenced the way universities operate, but the technology’s presence has introduced new distractions and snafus. Many schools promote their wireless Internet connections to lure prospective students. Students take fuller sets of notes on their laptops than they ever could with pen and paper, but they continue to send e-mail to their friends even after the classes start. Professors seamlessly weave Internet content into their PowerPoint presentations, but their lectures fall flat when something goes wrong with the Internet connection.
Now that I’m in graduate school, I’m discovering that it’s hard to make the claim that, on balance, all this fancy hardware is helping students learn better. Technology glitches frequently eat into class time: it’s not uncommon for a lecture to start late because the professor can’t get his laptop to work with the projector. One lecture I attended was delayed because the Internet connection was down, and the professor had neglected to save a copy of the course materials on his disk drive. Another class was interrupted when a pop-up ad appeared on the professor’s screen, hawking “genuine college diplomas” for $99.95. (Who says irony is dead?) And it isn’t just the science and engineering classes that are going high tech. Last fall, I took two classes at MIT’s computer science department and two other courses at Harvard University. For the computer courses, both professors lectured with chalk in front of a blackboard; it was at Harvard that the professors used PCs.
I’m not arguing that schools and universities have erred in their adoption of information technology. But institutions of higher learning need to do a better job evaluating the ways students and faculty use the technology.