Every now and then I have a brief moment when I weep for my generation.
While taking notes in my biology class, I peered forward and saw the student in front of me playing a game on his MacBook. This wasn't anything unusual -- I've observed students do everything from perusing pictures of Facebook to watching "Mulan" while in class -- but when I looked closer, I noticed something about this particular game was peculiar. This guy was playing ESPN College Town, an Internet-based game in which one creates a fictional college and maintains it a la Farmville. Essentially I observed this student playing a game that simulates the college experience, while in a college classroom, participating in the college experience.
The irony nearly toppled me over, but alas, this is the reality, or pseudo-reality, of a college student in the digital age.
As budget cuts force Universities to begin looking for ways to save money, one of the most popular methods seems to be an increase in the number of online classes offered. While some may argue that online classes detract from a student's ability to absorb the material, most students that attend large Universities understand that for many students, whether it has an official designation or not, almost every class is an online class. This is because large lecture halls seem better fit for LAN parties than learning experiences based on the number of students who surf the web during class.
Professors at some Universities such as George Washington University and the University of Virginia have even combated the problem by banning laptops from lecture halls. But it's the professors themselves who can encourage the excessive use of laptops by relying on programs such as Powerpoint while lecturing. Powerpoint slides allow the professor to cover a multitude of information in a limited amount of time before moving on to the next slide, leaving slower hand writers in the dust.
Beyond that, a student can feel naked in a large lecture hall without a laptop as many courses rely heavily on course websites, which contain assignments and lecture notes. But it's here that the cycle begins. In the process of seeking out these notes or opening a Word document, a student can log onto Facebook, you know, just to glance at their notifications, and then, "Oooh, Sheila's on Facebook chat... I wonder how she is... I wonder if I have any emails... Is Jersey Shore on tonight?" and voila, class dismissed.
But most universities today seem to cater to the laptop dependent student. One semester at UT Austin, between bubbled in Scantron tests and typed up research papers, I didn't have to utilize my handwriting one time. The result was $120 in printer cartridges and me partially forgetting the cursive alphabet.
Recreational lap top use can distract more than just the person updating their status. As Diane Sieber, a professor who teaches humanities for engineers at the University of Colorado, described to The Times last March, laptops in class can create a "cone of distraction," whereby students sitting around a person that is procrastinating on their laptop can be drawn into that student's activities -- similar to how I was briefly distracted by the exploits of Mr. College Town. But after having sat in giant lecture halls consistently for four years now, the only time I can recall being distracted by another students laptop activity for the duration of a class period was the time I sat behind the starting running back on the football team while he played Mario Golf all class. He was really good -- I guess he had lots of practice. But for the most part, I feel there are far more students who contribute to the "cone of distraction" than there are innocent bystanders.
Students (or their parents) are the ones footing the bill for the right to be in the lecture hall in the first place, so perhaps Universities should not be at liberty to tell us whether or not we can use electronic devices in class. If a student wants to compromise their college experience by playing games in class simulating, well, the college experience, that's their choice as an adult.
With a greater push to further digitize the college experience, odds are laptops are going to become more indispensable to students than ever. This leaves the MacBook wielding college student with two options: learn to multi-task, or don't learn at all and flunk out. Either way, students from time to time need to remind themselves that just like the text they receive while driving, that ever so clever (unnecessary) tweet that crosses their mind during lecture can wait.