Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Big Brother Goes to College

The Shot Heard 'Round the World - Ween (mp3)
The Schooling - My Friend Steve (mp3)

Still working on my best of lists. So you’ll just have to read or ignore another random commentary today.

I find myself in the uncomfortable position of rooting for Big Brother.

A story in the November 15 New York Times explores the increasing use of technological “clickers” to monitor student attendance and attention in college classrooms, and parents all over the country who are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to advance their children’s knowledge and abilities, should be thrilled that technology is at last doing something to prevent rather than provide distraction for their kids.

Remember when someone on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” wants to Ask the Audience? And then everyone in the audience keys in their answers? Best I can tell, technology is allowing professors to make the college lecture hall or classroom into a giant, individually-trackable Ask the Audience.

So when Ben Stein is up there asking the snoozing classroom about the Laffer Curve and Voo-Doo Economics, he can actually track the attentiveness of each student in that class by requiring them to input answers while he banters about.

Will this allow shitty boring teachers to, while failing to make any point of significance or failing to teach anything of import, ignore their own shitty boringness? Of course it will. But in my experience, 90% of shitty boring teachers are incapable of even recognizing a fraction of how terrible or boring they are. Further, no amount of wishing or politicizing will magically erase shitty boring teachers from the planet's surface. To bastardize Garrison Keilor, not all teachers can be above average.

Therefore, if I’m paying for my child’s college education, I don’t really care how boring or shitty a given teacher or professor may be. I care that my child shows up to class, pays attention, and works diligently. The person most essentially responsible for my child’s education is... my child.

When my advisees tell me they are doing poorly in a class because a teacher is bad or boring, I consider that to be a convenient and lazy excuse most of the time. (Occasionally, the level of teacher crappiness is indeed reasonable cause for student struggle.)

Plenty of studies correlate positive relational dynamics with student performance. The more a kid likes his or her teacher, the more they trust and respect that person, the better they’re likely to do in a class. Fine. But if part of college is to prepare us for the harsh world beyond, then part of that education is that we cannot solely rely on those in charge of us to be our motivators and inspirators. Almost all of us will, at some point or another, work for people who don’t inspire us, who don’t encourage us. This will not excuse us from remaining passionate or committed to our responsibilities. And if it does excuse us, then the job is a job rather than a calling.

Having discovered the Twitterverse last spring, I’m utterly wrapped up in reading reports and research about the evolution of teaching & learning. It’s great to read one day about the vital nature of computers in keeping math education relevant and read the next day about the danger of computers in classrooms or in the home. The simpleton might dismiss these findings as contradictory, as eggheads fighting, when the truth is far more fascinating and energizing.

Technology, like all great tools, can be used for good or ill, for advancement or dysfunction. Laptops and cell phones and Twitter and everything else in our modern techno-worlds can be both good and bad at once, just like humans.

And the harsh truth is, in college classrooms all around the country, a little more Big Brother is a good idea. Next up: lightscribe pens with fingerprint identification for in-class essays, software with plagiarism software that works much like spell-check now, underlining suspect passages almost as we type. (NOTE: If someone reading this is smart enough to come up with a good business model, I only ask for a tiny pittance for the idea. Have your people get in touch with my people.)


Daisy said...

It seems to me what you are actually advocating is a more engaging collegiate classroom. One where students have to participate rather than just listen to a lecture. When it is my turn to foot the astronomical college bill I would rather be paying for a managable student professor ratio than an round of "Who Wants to Be a College Graduate"

troutking said...

Big Brother. And the Holding Company. Good band or just a vehicle for Janis Joplin?

Bob said...

I think you're being ironic. I think. As the parent of a serious student at a serious institution, this proposal is ridiculous to me. Perhaps the issue is that too many people are going to college who don't need to.

Billy said...

@Daisy - Excellent counterpoint.

@Trout - You taught me something. You, and Bobby McGee.

@Bob - Fair enough, and I agree about the "too many people" part, but I don't see that part of the equation changing. And the notion of skipping classes or even paying others to take your notes, take your tests and/or write your papers is not a minuscule problem, at least not at large universities. Part of the job of a system of education is to make a good-faith effort to police against the demons of a student's nature (i.e., Don't tout an honor code and then walk out of the room on a pop quiz and leave the answers on your desk).

Also, increasing numbers of students enter college hardly able to take notes with any skill, much less follow a 70-minute lecture. If a stupid handheld device helps address these problems, isn't that a good thing?

(So, I wasn't being terribly ironic. But it does admittedly sit a little awkward in my belly.)

troutking said...

Also, brick and mortar colleges are so over. In ten years, students won't even have to leave home. Just sit in front of the computer and use Skype like technology for a virtual classroom. In twenty years, students won't even have to do that. They'll just have the chip implanted in their brains that contains their memory of the college experience. Sure, the Harvard chip might cost a little more, but it's worth it. In thirty years, we'll all be dead from wars fought over resources brought on by global warming and the decline of peak oil. Or less.