Wireless in the Classroom

The Times has a front-page article today on in-classroom wireless Internet use. Among other schools (mostly American University), Dartmouth gets a cite.

Having taken advantage of wireless access while in classes at Dartmouth (and pining for a similar service at Penn), I think that it can be a great benefit to classroom discussion. With entire libraries of authoritative sources within reach, discussions can be better factually grounded and sources more correctly quoted. Sure, ‘Net access may be another distraction for students, but those not inclined to pay attention were probably reading the New Yorker or The Economist anyway.

Moves to ban classroom laptop use or to restrict wireless access (one administrator quoted in the article suggests that, at professors’ discretion, Internet access might be limited to only certain websites), ignore the value that these technologies add to the classroom experience. As a tool, laptop computers are sometimes more convenient for taking notes than a pencil and paper (especially for those of us who write illegibly) and allow easy keyword searching of previous notes and other class materials. Combined with wireless Internet access, laptops can be used to access all kinds of ancillary materials, from cited cases in law classes to government statistics in political science classes.

Using Omni Outliner, I’ve been able to take neat outline notes in all of my classes and then post them on the Internet — which is easily done — for my and others’ use. Even my professors have benefitted, consulting my notes to help themselves remember what’s already been covered in class.

This sort of usage — becoming more and more common every term — is a real benefit to the classroom and shouldn’t be sacrificed just because a few professors can’t bear the thought that they might not have their students’ undivided attentions. Short of replacing lecture classes with seminars, there’s no way of guaranteeing such a thing, anyway. Even without laptops, students still find plenty of ways to distract themselves: reading books and magazines, writing letters, sleeping, knitting (seen several times), drawing, and so on. Computers are hardly the basis of the problem.

Update: Glenn Reynolds: “Students who don’t pay attention in class are likely to do badly on the exam. That’s their problem, not mine.”