Almost none of my colleagues have any sense of the scale of the problem. To most professors over 50, the computer is an educational tool. If a student asked a professor for permission to bring a television set to class, the professor would be shocked. But a laptop connected to the Internet is, among other things, a television set. During lectures, students at our very best schools watch TV shows, video clips, and movies on YouTube, Hulu, or Vimeo. The forest of laptops may look much better than a television set on every desk, but in fact, it’s far worse.
In the beginning, about 15 years ago, students really did just use their laptops to take notes. But step by step, and so imperceptibly, we have moved to a situation where even the students who want to take notes are distracted by their own screens and those of their neighbors. The one devoted student using pen and paper is also distracted by the glow and flash, and the noise of fingers on keypads. It’s hard, as a student at another Ivy League school told me, to keep the focus after forty-five minutes of hard work when one neighbor has a music video going and the other is checking his stocks on line.
Meanwhile, we are losing the long tradition of people learning from other people. The lecture course, in one form or another, has been around for more than 2,000 years. The ability of one human being to reach another by speech is an irreplaceable part of what it means to be human. In seminars, laptops are still more harmful, serving as physical barriers that prevent a group of students from becoming a class.