Why closed screens during class?

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.

  • Anonüümne

    I just recently finished my studies in TTÜ and will argue against the policy, but I also state that the problem is elsewhere:
    – I used laptop to take notes and also search background information on almost all lectures. I can write at least ten times faster on the computer than on paper.
    – Many lectures are boring half the time and interesting on the other half so you can do some work related e-mails during the boring parts and listen to the interesting part.
    – I never used Facebook etc. on the lectures.

    But I think the overall problem is elsewhere. The problem is that lecture-format is a bad way of teaching. Lecture-format is a relict from hundreds of years ago. They are one-way communication where the student is made into a passive listener. People are not passive listeners by nature and don’t learn so.

    So if university classes would be like school-classes with max 20 people, discussions, excercises etc. then the closed screen policy would make sense. But until they are seminar type one way “I talk and you listen” events then the closed screen policy is harrassment.

  • http://twitter.com/martparve Mart Parve

    Best journalistic practices suggest a “full disclosure” in case the author is a direct stakeholder in the matter in hand. I have a feeling that this seems to be the case here.
    As for the argument that there’s a freedom of choice and students shouldn’t participate in lectures that they find uninteresting… For me, this poses a nasty insult towards the students. Why? I’ll tell you why. In order to pass a curriculum the student has no choice but to take the less valuable courses, besides the interesting and valuable ones. Oh yeah, one could not participate the lectures and just do the assignments, right? But my personal experience shows that the less interesting lecturers also don’t want to distribute organizational information elsewhere than in lectures. A self preservation instinct? Could be. Otherwise they could well be facing empty auditoriums.Other than that – it’s certainly a waste to have tens of young willing people sit in auditoriums, just using their computers. But would it be less wasteful in case they would sketch, draw, write poems, poke their noses or try to move watch hands with the help of telekinesis?

  • http://www.facebook.com/karikas Kari Käsper

    One of my colleagues at Tallinn Law School tested the closed screen policy during one of her classes and discontinued it after one semester, because there was no perceptible change in student performance. Therefore we have been reluctant to suggest or recommend this for our instructors.

    I agree with Wolfgang that we should not let technological change triumph over human interaction or consider technology automatically the best solution for any problem. We should not worship technology, but be mindful to use it if and when it suits our needs and not become ‘slaves’ of technology.

    While respecting the specific study related decisions and autonomy of the DPA, the communication of the decision and its reasons could have been handled much better. The media picked it up because it is easy to run with a story that “the university of technology bans laptops.” The nuances and reasoning will not receive the same coverage and in the public mind the image of TUT might have suffered as a result of the miscommunication.

    There is also a larger, more general aspect relating to how people study. Life outside the university is much more oriented to video games and audio-visual experiences. News have become infortainment, politics have become more populist. There is more information and less time to consume it. Therefore I would argue that younger generation has developed a substantially different set of skills with what they come to the university than previous generations. It is now the choice of the university, faculty, department and individual instructors whether to try to embrace and accommodate these changes (i.e. fundamentally rethink the way to study and teach) or try to get them to change. As I understand it, the current student-centric, outcomes-based studying model that is being implemented in Estonia, expects the former rather than the latter. 

    I have toyed with the idea of putting my courses on Facebook (instead of the cumbersome and complicated Moodle), because most students are there anyway. I know a former colleague who did it already several years ago and I have also some friends who are young teachers in Estonian schools, where they also use Facebook a lot to communicate with students (probably not so much during class time). I also remember seeing a lecture on TED regarding how students were live-updating a wiki with class notes which was shown on the projector and which the lecturer could comment and update also during class. I already have had several in class assignments when I expect students (at least one per group) having access to internet, because carring around huge books or papers with cases and laws is not very useful.

    In conclusion, I think it will be very interesting to see the results of the DPA experiment. However, the topic is much larger than simply closed screens or open screens and I hope this discussion also contributes something to the larger debate about the future of studying and teaching.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Wolfgang-Drechsler/533288585 Wolfgang Drechsler

    Hello Mridala, good to hear that you never used Facebook etc. during lectures. However, many students do, and it is they who harass (though such a strong word is hardly appropriate) their fellow students and  lecturers. And again, if you really type ten times faster than you can write longhand, then you may type too fast – you may not have processed what you were writing down before you did, which is the point of note-taking.

    But the main point of your comment I would strongly argue against is your indictment of the lecture. This has become a real cliché by now in Estonia and elsewhere, so it is really worth taking up. It is also something of a paper tiger, i.e. I have never seen, certainly not in our department, any incident of real frontal instruction, meaning the lecturer just stands there and reads from notes to the mute, docile class which writes it down as gospel truth. That, indeed, as Max Horkheimer pointed out half a century ago, has become obsolete since Mr. Gutenberg invented the letter press.

    But even beyond the Q&A sessions and the interactivity any good lecture has – any good lecturer even calibrates style and contents as she goes along on the basis of the audience’s reaction – the two main types of good lectures, the spontaneous elucidation and explication of a complex subject matter without notes in front of students (which, believe you me, takes more concentration and competence than any other teaching format) and the well-conceived, careful, planned academic lecture, are the royal disciplines of teaching, not only for the lecturer, but also for the class.  You potentially learn the most from those, but you will not if you mentally opt out halfway through to do some business mails.  This is not an obsolete form of teaching, although it is old, but rather, it is a primordial one – meaning that, anthropologically speaking, we know of no societies that do not pass down non-inheritable knowledge in this format of someone who knows telling and those who do not know listening in an at least somewhat structured context. It would also be saying that theater plays, books, movies, songs etc. – anything that is an uninterrupted expression or display of meaning – are obsolete if there is no interactivity throughout.  Interaction can and has to come afterwards, but you need to give good creative people some space to let them say what they have to say. 

    Sure, you need group work and seminars (genuine seminars: these are discussions of papers that all students have written on different subjects before class begins and that all other students have read) and web-based exercises, scenarios, and games and so on, and some of these formats are both much easier to do today and much more necessary than they were before. But they are not everything, and there is a distinct place for a good lecture.  In fact, a good lecture is so difficult that some not-so-good lecturers try to avoid it – in the classic European university, they were even often reserved for full professors. In the Tartu “200 Years Imperial University” Festschrift, the science philosopher Walther Ch. Zimmerli, Rector of TUT’s new partner school BTU Potsdam, quips that the interactive discussion was invented by a prof who came to class unprepared, sat on the desk and said, “Well, class, what do you think about our issue for today?”  That new format was a good one, but information conveyance, interpretation, the frame-working of acquired information – these are often, not always, done best in a well-thought-out and well-delivered lecture format first.  That is why, for instance, some of the top business schools forbid their lecturers to do too much group work, breakouts, etc., because what they get paid for, and usually very well, is to share directly what they know.  Good students want to listen, and good teachers want to lecture, and neither should be prevented from doing so.

  • http://twitter.com/martparve Mart Parve

    Oh yeah, and I’m pretty surprised that the decision was not backed by solid evidence. It would have been relatively easy to issue personal wifi accounts to students, and then to compare academic performance to lecture-time wifi usage. It would have assured the necessity of the measure, demonstrated good will, improved relations with the students and given a good example to students how management decisions should be evidence-based.

    The way of forcing the will on others with the means of bureaucratic power, with no solid evidence and without discussion is something that resembles the ways of a certain another state, in another era. Not a good way to enhance trust and good will.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Wolfgang-Drechsler/533288585 Wolfgang Drechsler

    As regards Mart Parve’s comments, has it been somehow unclear that I am a member of the TUT Department of Public Administration in question, and that I am talking about our, which also means my, policy? I thought the beginning and end of the text made that abundantly clear, but if not, let me state here that I am Professor of Governance in that very department (and very glad to be).

    As regards freedom of choice, if I understood the statements of all the PR guys from the other Estonian public universities correctly, ours is the only department in Estonia at all that has a closed-screen policy, and our policy obviously only applies to our department and its context. It is therefore the easiest thing at all to switch to a curriculum – indeed, any other curriculum at all – within or without TUT where one can open one’s laptop as wide as one wants to. Incidentally, in our case, as far as I know, all our organizational information is avaliable online, as are all materials and many of the classes themselves.

    And finally, the very strong pull of web and net today, which is one of my main arguments for this policy at this point in time, means indeed that it would comparatively be much less of a distraction for other students and lecturers alike if students sketch, draw, or write poems. In fact, personally speaking, it would not distract me at all, nor would I mind.

  • http://twitter.com/martparve Mart Parve

    “If you don’t like something, walk away!” is a bold attitude. But it’s not a bold argument.

    I agree that the pulling power of web is huge. No point in denying this. I just somewhat idealistically envision that there can be something done with the pulling power of the educational process as well.

    OK. Laptops are gone. Any other plans how to engage students more intensively? Or is everything perfect, and it was just lazy students with their stupid laptops, and the problem is all gone now? :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Wolfgang-Drechsler/533288585 Wolfgang Drechsler

    Regarding Kari Käsper’s comments, I shouldn’t really reply because intra-faculty debate is even these days done internally first, and that, too, I regard as a non-obsolete modus operandi. But I will do so anyway and say that it may very well be that closed-screen policy in the TUT Law School does not change student performance, but how one can find that out in one class and after one semester is somewhat unclear to me.  In general, if scholarship-based, academic education is the goal, open screen does limit the experience.

    As concerns communication, the press does what it will, but I think that public discourse on an important matter such as this, especially where there are clichées to be tackled, is a good thing rather than a bad one, also for TUT. I am actually amazed that both in comments and polls, there are about as many who are for the closed-screen policy than there are against. Seeing that this discourse necessarily happens on the net, and seeing the strong e-belief in Estonia, this surely is surprising. So, there seems to be no reputational loss (although even this has sometimes to be risked).

    As regards teaching, I myself for example have advocated and tried the use of Facebook in class and programs, m-courses and other ways of “innovative” teaching, partially because one has to pick up students where they are, always watching however that one does not fall into the cliché trap regarding where they really are. The conscious use of the web in class, however, is in no way in conflict with a general closed-screen policy, which, again, and as stated every single time from the department, is up to be waived by the respective lecturer.

    But there are two larger questions implicitly addressed here:

    First, in a day and age that is completely dominated by ICT, is it the role of the university to only go along with it, or is the idea to have graduates who are, at least potentially, autonomous individuals who can judge and use technology, rather than to be used by it? That is actually the image of the human person at the basis of the Estonian Constitution. Taking a step back and trying to evaluate what is happening around oneself is the key to both insight and improvement, then and now, and you don’t get to either by just running after the last fashion. The key to higher education today is complementarity to, not imitation of, the ruling techno-economic paradigm.

    Second, is there any educational mission of the university, especially in undergraduate instruction?  Education is change; if change is prohibited, so is education. If we are going only for training, what are we doing in a university? You train dogs, you educate people. Yes, they need to want to be educated, rather than trained; but then, nobody forces them to study anywhere specifically, and as we see, their options are more than plentiful.   

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Wolfgang-Drechsler/533288585 Wolfgang Drechsler

    The policy was installed yesterday, so we have no empirically valid results of improvement yet, I’m sorry to say. :-) It is, however, not supposed to solve all problems, but if it can solve some, I myself would already be quite happy.

    As regards the engagement of students – who are not lazy but distracted, that’s a big difference – I personally am trying my very best every day I am in class; feedback is pretty heartening, but about that you better ask our students, or you waste some time and attend a lecture of mine. Closed-screen if possible; you may however write any poem you want to. :-)

  • Anonüümne

    In regards to the closed screen policy one can opt to support innovation and yet keep the screens closed when it is necessary. Defaulting to closed screens demonstrates a luddite like mindset. I’m not saying that technology is always the best solution for everything, but stating that “I have tried Facebook and Moodle” does not suffice to consider ones attempts a failure in educating youth with new methods. It sounds like an excuse. 

    Consider this, our eyes are able to collect more information than our ears. Why disregard the attempts to better the education system? If you state that students should use the technology and not be used by it, then please explain at what point in their lives should they learn these skills? In the shower perhaps?

    I strongly support free speech, but the “if you don’t like it, you can always leave” attitude is more than arrogant. I agree that the use of ICT should be complementing higher education, that is why it’s foolish to restrict it’s use. Simply because the staff can’t conform, thus making the majority suffer for their inadequacies. Your department should be fairly familiar with the concept of voting. Why not practice that concept?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Wolfgang-Drechsler/533288585 Wolfgang Drechsler

    I’ll try to reply to the basic issues raised: You are barking up the wrong tree here. Precisely because the world is changing, and precisely because of technological developments (“innovations”) do we need to attempt to stay in control as much as possible, to think about and discuss what is happening and why, and how we should position ourselves towards that change. It is, as I said, precisely the engagement with ICT and ICT theory that leads one, must lead one, certainly in an academic setting, towards a position where the blind endorsement of any novelty is not the only possible option. The best thinkers about ICT have allowed for that space, and for instance, there is a reason why Manuel Castells, who conceived of the network society and whose “Communication Power” is one of the best frameworks within which to think about the social web, has been highly critical of e-voting, although it conforms to the logic of the ICT paradigm. Some things change with technology (and a lot of things change because of ICT), but not all, and some of these changes are better than others. One needs, I would venture to say, to react to that with an open mind, but that is not easy if any form of dealing with technology in such a way is immediately pounced upon with the accusation of luddism, especially if it’s the opposite. Technological change is too important to leave it to the techies; not all that is technically doable is desirable; and technology is not an aim and purpose in itself. (That technological entrepreneurs and inventors occasionally may need to think differently is another matter.) To say that technological progress automatically leads to good results – that is a view I would really view as old-fashioned; indeed, that’s 19th Century thinking. The idea of a technical university is technology in context.

  • http://distantsignal.blogspot.com Daniel Vaarik

    I have studied technological culture for about five years, especially the effects of ICT and I must say that gradually I am starting to take notice and understand what Wolfgang is saying. 

    First, to anyone, who claims that this argument we are having here, is itself in any ways new: It is not. It is even a glaring misunderstanding that it is new. The history of technology has all these debates happening all over and it goes back to ancient times.Second, there are many examples of new technologies being used in really stupid ways throughout the history and the stupidity mostly is understood only in hindsight. (Radioactive baths anyone?). There is a fair chance that we might also be wrong about some usages of this one, or at least we should not be religious about our position. 

    Thirdly, there is a strong issue with distraction and learning. There is a saying that truth resists. Truth is difficult. Truth means pain. Online distractions are not good for learning process. And besides, although computers and ipads are new, they are nothing more or nothing less of a technology as many other technologies that you naturally would not take to any place. 

    Sometimes I feel that we are watching too much tablet pc commercials indeed, we try to live an IT utopia and then try to build our thinking around it. 

  • http://twitter.com/ppmotskula Peeter P. Mõtsküla

    It’s been more than 10 years since I last visited TTÜ as a student, and more than 3 years since I visited any other university as a student. So I can’t exclude the possibility that classroom practices have changed massively during this time, rendering my memories irrelevant. If this is true, feel free to ignore this comment.

    Not all lecturers are the same. There are the ones, whose presence and presentation are so engaging that hardly anyone in the audience can find himself even thinking about something else. And then there are the ones who seem to think that the students are there with the purpose of writing down, word by word, the Ultimate Truth they’re reading from their well-worn lecture scripts.

    Regardless of who pays for the tuition — the government, or the students themselves — the latter kind of “teaching” is nothing but an insult to the students, at least in the post-Gutenberg era. In such cases, it is only logical that the students delegate the duty of note-taking to quick writers with a clear handwriting, and share copies of their notes afterwards. But I clearly remember that some of the professors of the latter kind also maintained a policy of mandatory lecture attendance, threatening to fail the non-attendees on their course completion tests.

    In presence of sucky lecturers, students have been spending their time on unrelated activities way before online communication technologies were invented. True, modern technology makes such conduct — and sharing the notes — easier than ever before, so the boundary between boring and interesting has shifted, forcing some previously interesting professors to find themselves on the sucky side.

    A mandatory “shut screen” policy can be easily seen as an attempt of re-lowering the bar  between suckiness and excellence with the purpose of making less-than-brilliant professors “good enough” again. And, at least as long as we’re speaking of students who pay for their own studies, it’s in my opinion unfair to make them endure lectures that are waste of both their time and their money.

  • http://twitter.com/martparve Mart Parve

    “Truth is difficult” is the only valuable construct this far, at least for me personally. You certainly know how to express ideas, Daniel :)

    But these constructs of yours are still “convincing” – in the near-positive meaning that my friend Jaak Valge uses. They sound true, but other constructs can be also brought up, that are no less convincing.

    I would start by pointing out, that “Truth is difficult” does not mean “Difficult is truth”. Plenty of stuff sold in the Estonian universities with the label of “Education” is difficult ‘cause it’s just plain boring. And it would be wrong to accuse those not buying it to be afraid of the necessary hardships of acquiring decent education.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Wolfgang-Drechsler/533288585 Wolfgang Drechsler

    Just briefly: It is luddite to abolish machines or a technology themselves, not to restrict their use based on the context of use. The closed-screen default in class right now, for the short term, is based on the current use of information and communication technology by students during class: When the tools are needed or can be sensibly used, they are and will be. I cannot really argue with anyone unfamiliar with my work about my use of visualization in teaching (something which is a special interest of mine and for which I actually received an international teaching award and about which I have also written), but of course you don’t need to be familiar with it either. I likewise think that our classes do exactly that – teach students how to use technology and not be used by that, but you can do that both by training and by education, i.e. by practice and by talking about and discussing this. I would say, once again, that student feedback from the Technology & Society course suggests that this has worked rather well.  Finally, yes, I do think that voting with one’s feet is a way of voting, and that if there is one place that does it differently than maybe 500 others, yet with pretty good success as regards feedback and evaluation, I am not sure why it should be brought in line. 

  • http://distantsignal.blogspot.com Daniel Vaarik

    Ok, let us imagine then a perfect university with best lecturers, would you THEN agree that some closed screen policy would be useful? 

    (Parrying one potential counter-argument, I would point out that world’s best scientist might not always be the best showman and sometimes very clever people can also be boring. So the argument that “lecturers have to be interesting”, has some holes in it).

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Wolfgang-Drechsler/533288585 Wolfgang Drechsler

    First, yes, especially the undergraduate teaching environment has changed during the last three, let alone ten, years. Second, I agree with Peeter – and with everyone else – that there is no reason why anyone should take bad and/or boring classes, no matter who pays, but I still don’t understand why they do, especially if there is no monopoly and a lot of choice. Third, I really do not want to go too much into PR here, but I think that our department would have never dared to take this step if its results in teaching and research, nationally and internationally, wouldn’t be – fortunately – so good that we can take a lot of flak and still come out allright. This is, according to my self-understanding at least, about making good education (by all indicators) even better, not about making bad education look good.

  • http://twitter.com/martparve Mart Parve

    No, vice versa. I propose that in the best possible university such a policy would have no effect. In the contrary, it has the largest effect in the shittiest possible university.

    And for the second point of yours – I think that making the lecturers more interesting would be a smilar attack on consequences as the laptop ban. It’s just that the information monopoly driven education model is through. It’ll be disrupted, regardless whether the laptops are slammed shut or not. 

    Today, the ban won’t have much effect. Some students will skip the lectures altogether and will miss the small bits that they otherwise would have caught. Some will find other distractions. Some will pay closer attention, and it’s all going to pretty much cancel each other out.

    The main effect is the sparking of the debate. Thanks for that :)

  • http://twitter.com/martparve Mart Parve

    Sad that you decided not to conduct a scientific experiment on that move. Now, afterwards, you can’t differentiate the causes of the following dynamics any more. Plus the other benefits I pointed above.

    Now it’s only a typical debate of humanities’ scholars’ – comparing theoretical constructs and seeing whose is longer.

  • http://distantsignal.blogspot.com Daniel Vaarik

    It would be tempting to ask, how often have you lectured at universities and how often have you seen the learning process take place there and what actually happens in a classroom. Point being here is that mostly the counter-argument seems to be based upon some traumatic experience in Estonian universities in the 90ies. 

    I have plenty of them too, but even then, if you do engage even a bad professor and your classmates as well, the result is more educational than not being there.

    Now coming to the abovementioned department in Tallinn Technical – it is actually a very successful one otherwise. Second question – how often are people google’ing while attending, say, kickboxing training? Taking the disruptive revolution to the new level without ever looking back, sending sms-s while learning new moves?

  • http://twitter.com/ppmotskula Peeter P. Mõtsküla

    Why students take boring classes? One of the reasons is that some of them are listed as mandatory parts of the curriculum. Again, the university life in Estonia may have changed a lot after “my time”, but as far as I can remember, there were certainly exceptions to my freedom of choice.

    Of course I could’ve chosen to study a different subject in a different university or country, or no higher education at all, but I’m afraid this line of thinking would be too theoretical to be considered seriously.

  • http://sten.tamkivi.com Sten Tamkivi

    “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.”

    Skipping the tempting emotional arguments regarding any network connectivity destructing a learning process per se, OK: let’s consider a disconnected computing device then for a second. It would be really intriguing to see some evidence behind the above-quoted claim that a notable reason humans are becoming less effective in knowledge acquisition is the _reduced_ friction of textual data capture that touch-typing has brought over handwriting. And, not just capture – also the flexibility for editing, versioning, tagging, filtering, reviewing, copy-paste and search capacities, etc.

    If this is true and evidence exists: makes you wonder how great we must have been with editing/reviewing/learning before we transitioned from etching stone tablets (tons of time to internalize the material at hand? *pun intended*) to that speedy and lightweight ink-on-paper tech, doesn’t it?

  • Taavi Oja

    I don’t think laptops have added extra value to classrooms.This is technology driven thinking – I can do everything faster and better optimized, therefore it must be better? But this is not the point of studying isn’t it? I think that academic fields should be neutral as possible. Lecturers should be using the technology to be up to date but they should not go fully online.Teaching and studying should not be taken as optimized products but as a way to step out into neutral ground, where mission is to alter the power of thinking itself.

  • Oudekki Loone

    I still do think that if students in mass use FB or twitter in the lecture there is some fault on the professor and on university admission rules… And we should consider that.

    I have never thought to tell my students that FB is forbidden, because I have never given a thought that they don’t understand it themselves. There are some things were students do have to make their own decisions… And, still, I feel it a bit insulting to students’ intelligence. I mean, I do not tell my students not to play hide-and-seek during the class, they are not any more in first grade.

    But what I do forbid, is the usage of presentation programs (like powerpoint) in seminars / other situations where students have to talk of what they have researched/read. A person with university degree must be able to present their argument (until the argument’s length is about two hours :) ) without any other help than blackboard. And usually student presentation is 15 minutes…

  • http://kair.ameerika.ee Kair Käsper

    As a recent graduate I agree with the problem described by Mr. Drechsler. If the student experiences even a temporary lack of interest for what (or how) the lecturer is presenting, he can immediately turn to his business mails or look at a funny picture of a squirrel on 9gag.

    However I consider the ban of technology in the classroom a very short-sighted solution and I’m disappointed by the inadequate argumentation brought up to defend it.

    I attached a picture of a mind map I made four years ago in one of the Semiotics of Literature lectures. I should point out that I made this on a computer, not using colored papers, pencils, scissors and glue.

    I’ve been using mind mapping for years, in and outside the classroom, and personally consider it to be one of the best ways of learning and developing ideas. It enables me to change, re-organise, connect and combine anything I want, whenever I want. I have technology to thank for this, the same technology that DPA has just banned.

    The department’s “shut screen” policy forces me to actually downgrade to something less effective. The aim should be to embrace innovation, not obstruct it, right?

    If I was a paying second year student I would be outraged. However I’m not and even if I was prospecting I would think twice before applying because to me the department has just sent a signal that it can’t handle the technology boom. A pretty bad message in general, I’d say, for a university that has “technology” written in it’s name.

    There are alternative solutions to the problem, some probably more effective and complex than others, but pretty much all of them less harassing than the one you’ve imposed on the students right now.

  • http://www.facebook.com/rainrannu Rain Rannu

    In the startup world, running an experiment is the best way to get validated learning. This seems to be exactly what is being done here – one department of one university, trying out something different, intending to measure how it works, possibly keeping it, possibly fine-tuning it, or possibly removing it altogether if it fails. 

    It’s been about 10 years when I was last attending one of Prof Drechsler’s classes, but I do vaguely remember than in social sciences, field experiment (as opposed to laboratory experiment) is the preferred method of study? ;) I don’t know whether this particular initiative is set up as a “scientific” experiment or not, but sure it’d be possible, after just a few months, to draw a few conclusions (that’d at least pass as validation in the startup world) whether this policy has been successful or not (by comparing a few metrics to previous situation, or any other class where this policy is not in place, etc.) 

    I can’t see why it’s useful (especially by non-stakeholders here) to critizise it before that. 

  • http://twitter.com/martparve Mart Parve

    Following a fruity chat with Daniel I discovered that I’m really not good in expressing myself, and thus I rephrase some points I tried to make previously.

    I didn’t want to say that (all) lecturers are bad, or that using a computer in a lecture always enhances productivity.

    I wanted to point out that lecture as a particular means of communication satisfies less and less people, over time, as the “information monopoly” side of higher education diminishes slowly. And these people take out their iDevices or Mac Devices and slip into the parallel worlds of internet. Often to no useful benefit to anyone (other than the FB IPO may be:). Banning them to do that might only give short term benefits, if any.

    What’s gonna happen with lectures as a phenomena? They’ll find their time and place, just as Walmarts didn’t kill out small specialty wine shops. They’ll continue to contribute to whatever new educational model that will be devised. And when their role diminishes and they take up less of students’ time, they’ll be more appreciated, and the laptop problem will also lose its prominency.

    Until then, being a lecturer is very hard. It’s like competing with a next store Walmart with your modest corner shop. You must be very charming and skilled, or use physical violence to stop people from slipping to the Walmart :)

  • http://twitter.com/martparve Mart Parve

    Bravo. That’s what I was telling here all along. But experiments for validated learning require a certain set up – that there’re observable metrics in place. I’m not sure that’s the case here.

    Firstly, haven’t heard anyone saying that someone is measuring the dynamics. Secondly, a proper experiment would have assumed splitting the same student group (so called “split testing”). Now we can only measure apples and oranges.

  • http://twitter.com/martparve Mart Parve

    Bingo as for the traumatic experiences in the 90ties :) 

    BTW I’m going through an Open University online curriculum right now. I just started but it’s really engaging and intense. For me, that is. And that’s one of the main points of the disruptions in educational system – every person has different needs in order to max out his effectiveness. “School of One” is a good example of probing these opportunities.

  • http://twitter.com/martparve Mart Parve

    But of course – let’s see the data once it comes in. If it ever does :) And let’s see the courage to pivot if the data doesn’t agree with the hypothesis!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Wolfgang-Drechsler/533288585 Wolfgang Drechsler

    I am not at all arguing that “a notable reason humans are becoming less effective in knowledge acquisition is the _reduced_ friction of textual data capture”, and I would therefore be surprised, too, if there were some research articles that would support such a claim. (But you never know.) What I am arguing is that taking longhand notes and then typing them is not a waste as compared to typing them down right away and then editing and reviewing them, especially because the retyping implies an act of editing and reviewing, which leads (hopefully!) to learning – with better results than you would have if you were writing or typing the text down just once.
    Admittedly, there is more flexibility in typing things down right away, but I would actually say that a bit of inflexibility has not only disadvantages – it has – but also advantages.  To use your own example, even if it was meant as a joke, indeed people think very carefully before they chisel something into granite, compared to, say, when they press the cuneiform script into clay tablets, or type something on the iPad.

    The question is, when has one arrived at a speed that is commensurate with the thinking process required for the action at hand? Typing things down very fast, which was the virtue of the notebook praised by many commentators on and against the closed-screen policy in the press (and also in the first comment here on Memokraat), easily leads to noting down everything that is said – but one should think along as a student and only note down key thoughts.  So, a little external delay may have its use. (Konrad Lorenz made this point regarding human existence and technology in a very general way.) Note that I am speaking about knowledge acquisition, not information acquisition, which in the case of lecture notes today (with information available elsewhere, from slides to texts) is not the main point. 

    A final literary illustration, perhaps: The “professor” in the study room scene in Goethe’s “Faust” recommends to the Freshman student to write down everything, as if dictated by the Holy Spirit, to which the student replies that he can see that, because what you have black on white you can safely carry home. However, the “professor” is actually the devil in disguise, in an academic cap and gown – the advice is really bad, in fact, counter-productive, as it forestalls critical thinking-along and makes you think you “have” something because you once wrote it down.  

  • http://twitter.com/aabram sven vahar

    I shall not address the problem of boring lecturers or allure of social networks which has been discussed enough here but I do take offence with “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” claim.

    Having enrolled university this year as my second time, with first time being some good 17 years ago I have pretty good comparison of what note taking actually meant then and what it means now. Actually, there is no comparison. Computer makes arranging notes into coherent, logical piece of text so much easier that it’s not even funny. I still have my pen & paper notes from back then and I have my new notes from computer era. The difference in clarity and structural logic is so huge that I seriously wonder how much more effective would my learning and reviewing process could have been. It won’t make me cry outright, no, on the contrary, I might even feel a bit proud of this old-school effort which allows me to look down at digital generation who simply cannot function without electronic devices but it does make me wonder whether returning to that time would be worth the effort. I can very well see the nostalgic appeal though.

    My final output — and I know that to be true for many of my fellow students too who still take notes with pen and paper as well due to lack of truly portable computer — is definitely an electronic file which is ridiculously easy to manipulate in order to re-arrange, edit or add things. I want to add additional charts, maps and diagrams, links and references to my notes. I perhaps would not need to do all this additional works if I would be provided coherent and linear speech that I could just write down from beginning to end and be done with it. As fun and educative random deviations and jumps to earlier thoughts may be it does not help my learning not one bit if I suddenly have to go back and sqeeze another paragraph — which is, of course all too relevant — into that train of thought that had passed already 3 pages ago. “Oh, I forgot…”, “By the way, this applies to what I said earlier…” and similar utterances are all too common.

    Should I be forced to first take notes on paper I’d definitely want to retype them into computer to produce flexible output format in the first place. That would effectively mean having to do second take on all the material, though yes, with editing. Arguments that it helps to retain and recall better are not really arguments that I, as responsible adult, would need to be forced upon me by random measures. I value my time and retyping from paper is not what I’d gladly do with my time. I’d rather take that time and read through another compulsory book or article.

    Of course, TTÜ and its departments can do as they please but then why stop halway? Why not make lecturers prepare their materials with pen and paper too, because, you know, obviously it has great editorial benefits and apparently helps to produce good enough final text. Downsides? What downsides? It takes more time? Nah, I bet it’s time well spent. Ok, irony aside, I know, some of them actually do. But some don’t. And it’s fine for each to have their own way.

    Right, what I really wanted to say that there is need to fight certain activities but instead of that there is a fight against tools that enable those activities. Never mind that those tools can be used for other things too.

    It reminds me of an old joke where two patrolling cops find a body near theatre and as one of them starts to write the report he pauses briefly and asks his partner: “How do you spell theatre”? “I don’t know,” replies the other, “but you know what, let’s drag the body over to cinema!”

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Wolfgang-Drechsler/533288585 Wolfgang Drechsler

    Ok, I think the discussion is somewhat exhausted by now, because I have addressed most of the issues in this post either in the text or in the discussion. In today’s world, the use of FB or twitter during lectures may still be the fault of the (undergraduate) students, but it seems appropriate not to lead them into temptation (as with any adults in other areas as well, such as speeding and smoking); no, it is not necessarily the fault of bad admissions procedures or professors (which would be quite odd, looking at the empirically verifiable academic quality of the institutions under discussion); yes, Facebook and twitter use does happen a lot (and I wonder how much in touch with student reality instructors are who, literally, don’t see that); no, net and web activities are not always fully subject to rational decision-making anymore.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Wolfgang-Drechsler/533288585 Wolfgang Drechsler

    I can only second what Rain wrote – I would think that it takes, unfortunately, a bit longer than half a year to measure effects on education rather than training, but the tendency is there, and we will have preliminary results. (But no, this is not meant as an experiment; that would be pretty unethical. :-) )

    Meanwhile, I do think that there are plenty of students in the department who actually appreciate being able to better listen to lectures, discuss the contents, and learn the subject matter, so I am not really worried about a massive walkout. The aim of an academic department at a University of Technology, again, is to embrace technical innovations, but not to swallow them unquestioned – this is not what handling a technology boom means.

    And finally, I addressed the apparently misleading statement about pen and paper, which also really seems to upset people, in my reply to Sten Tamkivi. I will repeat, however, as I am not sure I made that sufficiently clear, that taking notes is not the central activity of being in a (good) class; listening and understanding is. To prohibit the use of tools that can have good uses or bad ones (knives, say) is a balancing act, but often the prohibition has in a specific context more up- than downsides.

    Against all the examples brought up here, I would still say that in the case of a closed screen policy during class, this is the case. But I hope indeed, coming back to the experiment metaphor, that if it were not, we would rescind the policy.  In addition, I think that the laptop’s best times are anyway over and that we may be quite close to different forms of note-taking and of staying connected, or disconnected. If the technology changes, as I said, so will the policy.  

  • Margus Mere


  • Oudekki Loone

    Well as no more than 10-15% of my students use computer during the lecture, I do not see it as a problem.

    Until the admission rules are roughly – let’s take everyone who wishes and knows how to read and write and let’s guarantee that 50% of them do graduate, then even if all 10% use twitter during all 4 hours of the lecture… I don’t still see it as problem.

    I do tell in the beginning of all courses: “if you feel that you have really something else, more important to do, go and do it,  because anyhow you won’t be listening to me and it is waste of your and my time. And of course, if there is “something more important” far all, like students’ protest in front of parliament, tell me, we change the lecture time. But be advised, persons who do attend lectures get usually better grades”. Most of people do attend lectures.

    Also, I have a nasty habit of asking questions during the lecture and letting students comment on my thoughts. Not only from “all”, but from specific students (also serves for not letting 4 students do all the talking). It helps a lot to create interactive mode in lecture, and make everyone attentive, because it is kind of difficult to admit: “sorry, I did not pay attention”.  Also, I do upload notes from my lectures so, that people don’t have to be secetaries, this helps as well.

    Another nasty habit is making (non-obligatory) test in every lecture on the material of previous lecture.

    If I see that FB and twitter become a problem, I plan to tell it as well “I am not going to control what you are doing, but be advised, being on FB and listening the same time does generally not function. But I do think that people who participate, get better grades”. By the way, I know that some professors give extra credits for “participation in discussion”. Usually students are motivated to go by the rules when they see that these rules affect their grade somehow, and more motivated, if going by the rules give them better grade….

    As of “academic quality”, this is difficult… Very good researchers are not always very good teachers, so, articles do not show the quality of teaching.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Janno-Järve/100001464922482 Janno Järve

    I would
    gladly see some references to some good papers supporting the policy of “closed
    screens”. It here is none, I would have expected a scientifically sound experiment-like
    design that would allow assessing the effectiveness of such ban in the future. So
    far I’m not convinced that it is possible to actually measure the effect of
    this policy.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Wolfgang-Drechsler/533288585 Wolfgang Drechsler

    Allright – in conclusion of my day, I would like thank Daniel for publishing this
    in Memokraat – already something daring – and most of the commentators for
    their opinions. That our closed-screen policy received a lot of criticism, here
    more than in other media, where opinion is roughly divided half-half, was to
    be expected and is entirely legitimate. However, summing up, I would repeat
    that while this policy does not come without negative effects, waiving it for
    the current time would lead to worse ones, especially because even mature and
    adult undergraduate students cannot escape the pull of connectivity, and the
    decisions they make for themselves are also decisions for the others who are in
    class with them. I would also say again, even if self-praise is not very
    endearing, that ours is an excellent, science-based academic department with mostly
    outstanding lectures (and really good university teaching is science-based – that’s the Humboldtian idea), and to give those students who want the full possibility
    to make the most of them is, I’m afraid, not up to a vote; it is a departmental
    decision. That decision will be rescinded if it turns out to have been wrong,
    but so far I have to say that I do not see why it would have been. In fact, I
    am really happy by the even public student support for our decision; it takes
    some guts to do so in an unquestioningly e-friendly environment such as this.
    But, likewise again, the point of the social sciences in particular and the
    university in general is to question rather than endorse the prevailing
    paradigm, even for that paradigm’s own sake. And finally, again, this remains
    the only department that has set such rules. It can easily be avoided; there is
    a choice; there is no monopoly; there is no harrassment whatsoever. Indeed, we
    will see some time in the not too distant future whose decision the truly
    student- and learning-friendly, the truly progressive and future-oriented one was.

  • Anonüümne

    What is demeaning here is that students are taken as guilty, all of them, of doing something they shouldn’t. Wait, they shouldn’t, right? Those darn bandits, always trying to do the wrong thing! And yes, they’re all guilty, all of them.
    Alright, you might argue it’s not their fault.  Sudents are too dumb to control themselves, like those darn drug addicts—damn them to hell, to hell I said!— because the evil minds behind media are just brainwashing them to have as much pleasure as possible. Excerting as much control as legally possible is then the only way to go for poor Estonians to get a hold of a minimum sense of respect towards the allmighty university.
    (Have any of you anyway realized how oxymoronic it is to have this policy at the TTÜ? I know you have, don’t be shy.)
    Students will not concentrate more if you force them to be focused, they will be as bored as before, as absent-minded as before, but wasting their time in some other way, such as drawing squares in their notebooks and the like. So hey, let’s ban notebooks and pens! That will surely make students focus on what their lecturers say. And while we’re at that, let’s also force students to wear blinders, like the dumb horses they are, so that they can trrruly focus. Or we can fabricate some complex Clockwork Orange type of seats for them so that they can really really focus, making their lecturers happy and even better! After all, it’s 2012, not 2011, the internet has lost much of its freedom and it’s time to control more! Think of the children!
    I’m just playing here. Why would students want to type in their computers? I mean, they may be typing TOO FAST, and they should go back home and type everything once again, and if they don’t like it, screw them, let them go home and study somewhere else—I heard Russia is a good place for those lazy do-nothing students! And anyway, why would students want to take notes? It’s not like learning has to be measured and exams are necessary and people must have good notes in order to ace those exams or write those essays with the right references or whatnot. In fact, some people may even cheat during their exams!
    I remember being at this lecture when suddenly someone at the back of the classroom opened facebook in his computer. Students sitting in the front of the class got so deranged because of this bad kid and his facebook page that no one could ever be focused again, so we had to stop the lecture right away and go home thinking about what they had done.
    I like this approach. I like contextual exclusion. We may be able to do that with people if this works. Maybe we could start excluding those students whose first language is not Estonian—their thoughts in that language surely disturb those of the students who really rrreally want to focus. And then those who are not blond—being different is quite annoying for some people. And then those who’re not protestant—common national beliefs must be taken as a precious landmark and we must not disturb those who believe in them. After all, we don’t want some rotten apples to contaminate the rest, don’t we?

  • http://twitter.com/tellakvere TELLAKVERE

    “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_. ” really? is it a fact or fiction? could you give some link to scientific study?

  • http://twitter.com/tellakvere TELLAKVERE

    Oh yeah, and I’m pretty surprised that the decision was not backed by solid evidence. It would have been relatively easy to issue personal wifi accounts to students, and then to compare academic performance to lecture-time wifi usage” this one is a good proposal

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Andres-Kütt/668019416 Andres Kütt

    I’ve been on both sides of the fence over the past 20 years. Let’s see if we can introduce some scientific impartiality here. Let’s look, for a second, at _why_ people might be using their laptops during the lecture. 

    Firstly, they might be doing research, looking at background. Which is probably fine although it tends to deteriorate to “whoa-who-just-pinged-me-on-Skype” kind of attention drift. 

    Secondly, the might be bored. This, again, might be because of two reasons. Firstly, the lecture might be boring. Let’s face it, there are lectures that are poorly prepared, poorly delivered and lack relevance. Secondly, the student might not be motivated to study: they might be just prolonging their childhood, find the subject uninteresting or have made a wrong choice of major. 

    Observe, that both of the reasons are under control of the University who might hire better professors, compile better curriculum and ruthlessly root out students who have no intention to learn anything. 

    Now, let’s think about _why_ professors and universities might want students not to use their laptops.

    Firstly, this is plain insulting to the person talking. I’ve seen it enough from in front of a class. It is hard to face the fact that you fail to capture the audience completely. And yet, it is almost always failure from the speaker part and I, for one, have a lot to learn. 

    Secondly, laptops might interfere with the method of study. A classical business-school case study analysis assumes that all students actively participate in the discussion and in fact in Harvard TAs will take note and your activeness or lack thereof will influence the final grade. 

    Thirdly, university might be worried about their image. Every graduate who is not on par with the rest of them out there will drag down the image of the University and this means less students and less funding and even lower quality graduates. Universities are aware of that spiral and are generally rather careful not to go there. 

    What can we conclude? Universities clearly have an objective problem with open laptops but they are fighting symptoms, not the root problem, as students have clearly many reasons other than research to get lost in the interweb. This, in turn, seems to be a sign of weak leadership, I’m afraid, as facing the actual causes like low student motivation and low quality of the teaching staff is a lot harder than issuing blanket orders. 

  • http://distantsignal.blogspot.com Daniel Vaarik
  • http://distantsignal.blogspot.com Daniel Vaarik