Tallinn University of Technology’s Department of Public Administration, from 1 February, has established the policy of closed screen during class, unless of course lecturers decide differently for their classes or individual sessions. That is and should be normal, but, looking at media attention and comments, it seems not to be so in the Estonian higher-education context. That means, of course, that it is all the better that we made this decision, because there seems to be a need for such a discussion. Here are my own reasons why I am very much in favor of this policy.
The advantages are obvious: Students learn more, teachers teach better – neither is really questionable. The policy is based on contemporary international best practice on the one hand and, on the other, precisely on current research on the subject matter and the theory of Technology and Society. It is based on a strong awareness of the centrality of ICT in everyday life and of how it changes human personality – it’s 2012 after all and not 2009 anymore; we have a different level of online usage now, but we also can – and have to – decide now where we want to have what e-technology, rather than being just ‘driven’. That is exactly what technological maturity means. For example, there is almost nobody left out there who would argue that multi-tasking works, and that people can concentrate on many things at once with equal results. More importantly, while a few years ago we thought that this was changing, actually it is not. Doing three things in parallel leads, as it always did, to worse results in all three fields and takes more time than just doing one thing after the other.
And if you deal with technology in a scholarly informed way, you know that the use of social media and internet communication is addictive. And no, people are not their own masters as regards being online; even people in their early 20s and not only younger ones often show medical symptoms after being forced to be offline for about four hours by now. It is like smoking – and like smoking, it is bad for yourself and for those sitting next to you, but normally, you cannot give it up easily. (Of course connectedness also has good sides, while smoking does not, but otherwise the parallel holds.) People will check messages if they can, and they will listen less to what someone might be saying to them at the same time.
That is also why a lecturer can be as good and fascinating as she wants – she cannot compete with Facebook. And it is particularly the best lecturers, those who are capable and enjoy teaching in their fields of genuine competence, who are demotivated and made worse by continuously distracted students. As importantly, web entertainment consumed by some students disturbs the others sitting next to them who would actually want to listen and learn, so that allowing open screens during class basically means having the educational experience seriously reduced for twice as many students, or more, as there are laptops open. That is why the reaction of a majority of currently studying genuine students, if I see correctly, has been positive. And that is why, as one of my distinguished colleagues in the department recollected, the Harvard Business School, where he took his MBA, adopted a closed screen policy on student demand.
How about the students who just want to take notes on the laptop? This is a balancing question: There is no technical possibility to block wifi in TUT departments – plus, there’s 3G and other options. Taking notes with pen and paper and then typing them down, if that is needed, is also not waste but a key editing, reviewing and learning exercise that leads to better results as regards knowledge acquisition. (Those who argue that this is not “green” have really not understood the basics of ecology, nor of academics – it is not a waste of paper to take notes on it, but sensible use; and since when is electricity production environmentally neutral?) Googling information during class makes no sense – the student should ask, as only that is interactive and may help other students as well. And being unable to bring up PowerPoint slides and making notes on them? Sure, that may be a disadvantage, a cost to pay, but good presentations, which usually have a narrative dynamic, should not be distributed to students in advance anyway, only after the class, because otherwise the narration and thus the visually-based teaching effect get ruined.
In addition, policing what students do on their laptop is almost impossible but certainly demeaning for lecturers and students alike – this, not the general prohibition, would treat students like children. And of course, students who for some reason really need to be reachable during class can still receive an SMS. If some students really need laptops as note-taking aids for example, if they are used in classwork, etc. there is of course no problem nor issue.
Finally, what about the argument that some lectures and teachers are so bad that you just need to distract yourself in order to stay awake? That you have the right to chat, sleep, read etc. during class? To such students I would strongly recommend that if the situation is so bad, then they shouldn’t waste their life on studying something, somewhere or with someone so very boring – they only have one life, they are not the proverbial cat! They should go somewhere else and do something that interests them and that they can manage. Estonia is a free country full of options and possibilities, and so is the global world of higher education. Students, however, who feel that any class in any field is wasting their time, really do not belong in any university at all.
And thus, it seems that on balance almost everything speaks for the truly contemporary closed-screen policy and almost nothing against it. As soon as technological options and usage behavior will change again, which they soon might, the entire issue will of course be reassessed. But for now, typed note-taking and on-screen reading do, in practice, come with distraction options attached which too many students apparently cannot resist and which lower the classroom experience for everyone involved, not only for those who chat and update during class. As responsible teachers and scholars in a public university in Estonia, it is our duty to provide the best higher education that we can, even if it goes against fashion and if it may provoke public controversy – perhaps even especially then, because that, of course, is one of the main purposes of the social sciences.