Opinion | Columns

Wired classrooms

On Oct. 14, 2011, I woke up at 5 a.m. and trekked down to the Upper West Side Apple Store. Prepared with my sleeping bag and $200, I was camping out to purchase the iPhone 4S. This may have been excessive, but after my iPhone 4 was stolen in China last summer, I was forced to function with an ancient, mammoth-sized Blackberry. As hipster as I looked, I wasn’t going to wait another day to re-enter the 21st century. (Definitely a #firstworldproblem.)

I secured my new phone at 10 a.m., and after playing around with Siri, the new voice recognition software on the 4S, I made it back to campus for a Friday morning discussion section. It turned out that we were discussing emerging technologies. When we got to the slide about voice recognition, I was quick to raise my hand and mention the new Apple software. Before I knew it, my Siri was making her first Columbia cameo, demonstrating her sassy retorts and helpful skills to the class.

In most cases, technology use in the classroom isn’t so seamlessly relevant. Professors, especially older ones, generally have a view of technology as inhibitory, distracting, and annoyingly click-clacky in the realm of academia.

Take laptops. It is standard for professors to ban them in smaller classrooms and discourage them in larger lectures. I have a problem with any sort of laptop limitation. I am aware of the reasons behind shunning laptops in the classroom. Faces are constantly glued to screens. The sound of a million fingers typing can be irritating and may require extra skill to lecture over. And of course, Facebook, Facebook, and more Facebook.

But none of these concerns are valid. Faces will be glued to computer screens or notebooks or clocks. Our high school teachers lectured over a lot more than keyboard noises. And I actually see Facebook and email checks as quick academic “palate cleansers”—anything more than a few seconds and the old folks have got a point.

The pros to laptop use in class far outweigh the cons. I, like many students, really don’t like taking handwritten notes. I’m just not good at it. I was never nominated for any “Best Penmanship” superlatives in high school. Not only are my notes neater when I type them, but I can jot down more information. I can even spell things correctly. In my Chinese Foreign Policy lecture, it’s nice to be able to quickly look up names like Jiang Zemin, Yang Shangkun, and Xi Jinping.

For those of us who take notes on our laptops, it always feels like a crime even hovering over Safari. No. Open it. The power of Google in a classroom lies beyond spell checking names. I once took a class with a girl whose sole, constant contribution to class was looking things up online. If the professor wasn’t sure of something, she’d find it. If we were discussing a current event, she would give us the most recent and relevant news. This kind of technological support is most conducive to small seminars in which laptops, unfortunately, are banned the most often.

Laptops aren’t the only technology that can enhance our classroom experience. Professors can initiate a class Twitter or hashtag, allowing students to express themselves academically in 140 characters or less. (Such brevity might even motivate classmates to listen to each other.) Funny YouTube videos are always successful as well—they definitely help professors garner a cool point or two. If you really want to knock your class out of the park, try a meme—they’re somewhere in between a punch line and a tweet, and they’re great for visual learners.

Some not-so-cool classroom technologies to take note of: clickers (cool for surveys, not for pop quizzes), PowerPoint presentations (quite the attention-loser), and class blogs. I mean, did you really think a blog about Thucydides could compete with Kim Jong-Il Looking at Things?

I asked Siri if she thought technology had a place in the classroom. She responded, “It’s nice of you to ask, but it doesn’t really matter what I think.” Well, Siri, it does matter what you think. Because every day, your role as an emerging technology is becoming more important. Academia needs to adapt and make room for new technologies because they are certainly capable of enhancing our classroom experience. Professors: Welcome Siri and other technology with open arms. Otherwise it’ll be the classroom, not the gadget, that gets left in the dust.

Arvin Ahmadi is a Columbia College sophomore majoring in computer science and political science. He is a Spectator online staff developer. Tech Etiquette runs alternate Tuesdays.

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