Thursday, March 06, 2008

A Cure for Continuous Partial Attention

On my way home the other night I noticed that the lead story in one of the university student newspapers was headlined "Frustrated profs consider laptop ban." This is one of those perennial favorites. Students seem distracted? Cut off their wireless, ban laptops and smart phones, and forbid internet use for coursework. After all, everyone knows that students always paid respectful attention to their teachers before computer and wireless internet use became widespread. The part of the article that made me laugh the hardest was a quote from an anonymous professor who complained that one student was typing into a laptop furiously for no reason. How hard must that class suck, if the prof thinks that nothing noteworthy was going on? And wouldn't you feel stupid if your inattentive student was brainstorming a cure for cancer? For their part, the students interviewed for the story mostly seemed to think that laptop use was actually helping them to learn and to prepare for their futures.

Really, shouldn't we be worried about the digital divide, rather than trying to exacerbate it? As Manuel Castells argues in The Internet Galaxy, a lack of access to networked devices is only one part of the problem. One of the fundamental challenges for a network society is

the installation of information-processing and knowledge-generation capacity in every one of us--and particularly in every child. By this I obviously do not mean literacy in using the Internet in its evolving forms (this is presupposed). I mean education. But in its broader, fundamental sense; that is, to acquire the intellectual capacity of learning to learn throughout one's whole life, retrieving the information that is digitally stored, recombining it, and using it to produce knowledge for whatever purpose we want. This simple statement calls into question the entire education system developed during the industrial era. (277-78)

A student's freedom to think their own thoughts, to structure their own mental activity, is a far greater good than trying to compel some semblance of attention. So here's a suggestion for all you frustrated profs: relax. I'm guessing that you may have spent some of your own undergraduate hours daydreaming, doodling or writing snarky notes in the margins of your notebooks. And look how well you turned out!