Does the Teacher Still Count in the Technological Age?

The last decade has witnessed a steady increase in the usage of internet and this seem, in my view, to have endorsed an overriding conviction that knowledge is about information and getting information translates to getting power.  (This document was posted on my Riceblogs) For details see the line -


At the two universities I've attended most recently (University of Rochester and Vanderbilt University), I've noticed a similar trend of students who use their laptops for non-academic purposes in the classroom. Many of the large lectures I've TA'd for at both universities have had professors who ban laptops from class unless the student specifically asks for permission to use the laptop from the professor - this is useful in cases where the student has a medical reason to use the laptop or has difficulty keeping up with handwritten notetaking for a variety of reasons. 

I wonder though why some professors decide not to tackle the issue more head-on. Sure, the students are ultimately responsible for the own education, but recent research suggests that even students who are not actively using laptops for "evil" are distracted by those who are. So, why does the professor not say "no laptops?"

To answer your blog title more specifically, I think that the teacher is still critical in the classroom, and perhaps if we're asking if they can be replaced by videos and MOOCs then the professor is not engaging with the students as actively as he/she could. I disagree with the notion that a 90-person classroom needs to be lectured at. I've watched many spectacular professors split the class between lecture and then discussion, which actively engages the students in the material. 

Ultimately I would ask if students are allowing themselves to be distracted by technology, how can we make sure the students understand what they're supposed to be getting out of the class OR how can we use their technology to make sure their engaging (for instance, quizzing and polling in class to make sure concepts are understood and highlight where the professor can speed up or slow down in the material based on student understanding).

Your post is interesting as it brings up an intrinsic transition occuring in society.  The Socratic Methodology of the lecture is dying, as students would rather just do their homework by learning the topic online and working with their friends.  For example I know that several of my peers choose not to attend class, as the homework they are assigned is designed to actually teach them the material online, so they see no point in spending the time to do so physically as they could be more productive skipping the lecture.  At the same time this transtion worries me as the greatest thing a, excellent professor can do is give you the answers you lack, instill passion in a subject, and act as a mentor to your time outside the classroom.

I think it really depends. I did my undergrad before the web, and I can say that I still had classes where I choose to do the homework and not attend the lecture - as I got nothing out of the lecture. But I also had others where I found the lectures to be useful. I think it has more to do with the type of content than the learning style. I think some content is best learned by doing (a lot of math for example, is best learned by self-study and practice) - where other topics are best learned through discussion or through lectures.

What I think technology will allow, is for those topics best learned through rote practice could evolve to be topics that are most frequently taught online or in flipped classrooms.

I certainly second the observations that student laptop use (particularly, but not exclusively, in large lecture halls) can be distracting for the laptop-user as well as those around him or her.  In addition, I think that even the laptop's physical shape, essentially placing a small wall between the laptop-user and others in the room, is detrimental to the community-oriented aspects of classroom work.

Yet right now I am wondering something rather different.  I am thinking about whether there is an issue of control here, and in particular whether a lot of this question pertains to who is, or should be, in control of a student's learning.  

To a degree, self-directed learning is extremely profitable.  This is what makes many online options for study so profitable: it allows students to decide what to study, when to study it, and how to accomplish their goals.  Online learning is user-centered and allows a lot of personal choices: one can tune in and tune out largely at will.

Yet part of the appeal of traditional in-class learning is that it pushes students outside their preferred methodologies and exposes them to ideas, questions, and discussions that they would probably choose to skip over if left to themselves.  These moments are often particularly profitable and can be transformative in ways that a student could never have expected.

I would suggest that students who use laptops (or whatever) in class in ways that take away from their attention from the material being presented are actually making a statement that they are in control of their own education.  They assert (perhaps unwittingly) that they know better than the instructor does what will benefit them in the long run.  This may or may not be true (perhaps it too often is true), but at times "tuning out" to the laptop certainly keeps students from moments of discovery that the instructor intended.


I think this is a really interesting and important question, and one that I've struggled with in my own composition and literature classes.  On the one hand, having the technology available in a composition class for in-class writing or peer review days---where a student can bring their laptop and work through the writing process in class the same way they do at home is wonderful.  As a teacher, I get to see the way my students map/organize their thoughts and how they approach their writing--and it is almost always digital.  I've encountered very few students who use pen and paper to create a concept map or paper outline for their research paper.  However, in another class setting that's not rooted in writing but centered instead on seminar discussions or lectures, I recognize exactly how challenging the laptop/cell phone/tablet problem can be for both the teacher and the student.

As an undergrad at a smaller liberal arts college, most classes of 12-20 students were seminar style where having a laptop out on a desk would have been a distraction to most people in the room and unnecessary for the class discussions. 

As a grad. student, I know that I listen differently if I'm typing notes transcript style at a lecture versus writing notes by hand.  I find the first lets the information almost pass through me, as I can type almost every word the presenter says, while the second requires a moment's pause where I find myself writing down concepts, headings, or particularly articulate phrases.  I find myself thinking more about what is being said in the moment when I'm writing it down rather than typing it.  Yet, I find my typed notes have their own benefits, not only do they eliminate my need to tackle any messy handwriting issues, but I find they also offer a more comprehensive overview of everything that was said versus the things I found significant enough in the moment to write down.

So, why not give this question back to the students and make an experiment out of it, meaning if the class lends itself to some sort of self-conscious thinking about the course material, why not in a lecture seminar have all the students bring laptops to take notes electronically on a lecture one day and then the next meeting they all take notes by hand.  We could ask them to think critically about how they work, process, experience, and learn differently through digital and paper mediums.  I think this too would not only recognize students as being in charge of their own education, but also give them the chance to assume some responsibility over it and really consider how they learn and what works for them.

Hi all,

I've been on both sides of this discussion -- as a teacher and also as a grad. student. Using technology to process our thoughts does have its advantages for many of us. For example, I know that when I paricipated in a social media experience where we "tweeted" live during a classical concert, I "listened" differently (better!).

there are myriad ways to work with this... or not. Perhaps electronic versions of lectures and/or notes? but having classmates or students zone out and check email incessantly is distracting. I would suggest a system where policies on use are set by the lecturer, explained and enforced. Perhaps teaching differently would help as well -- for example, using Twitter, TodaysMeet, Edmodo for online, interactive, real time chat

with the diversity of learners and learning not to meniton diversity in instructional strategies and pedagogical approaches... I don't think there's a definitive answer to this.  I agree with Jordan's idea of involving students to make decisions on this, for the purposes of collaborative decision making and accountability as well as to develop metacognitive skills (learning about how 'I" learn best).

with regard to a teacher "still counting" in the technological age? Yes -- and no. Teachers have great power over their own "relevancy" so to speak... if teachers use effective pedagogies fof the students, content and context -- yes. Relevancy and role are, in large part, often up to the indiviudal instructor.