Sunday, October 14, 2007


I've heard a lot about multitasking in regards to the "internet generation." Supposedly, we're able to simultaneously attend to numerous information streams and interact with all of them competently. This is mentioned in the book in box 3.1, "Sliced Attention." I have personal experience with this. I've seen students in class on laptops, looking very much like they're taking notes, when really they're reading email or looking at Facebook.

I used to bring my computer to class, to take notes on. The potential benefits are very alluring. It's easy to think that being able to take notes and organize them using any of the numerous notetaking applications out there would make the whole lecture experience more effective. Not to mention being able to reference the class website, look up confusing topics for further clarification, and record the lecture for later review. However, in practice, it falls apart.

I can't count the number of times I would start the class attentive, find something to look up, and spend the rest of the lecture browsing Wikipedia (invariably finding a path to something entirely unrelated.) It's far too easy for the computer to turn from a tool to a distraction. I've not found a mystical ability to focus on two things at once. If I'm doing something else, my work on a primary task suffers greatly.

That's why I now bring only a notebook and a pen to class. The only computer I use in class is the one in my skull. Using laptop in class is certainly an idea whose time will come, but current implementations aren't sufficient and are actually detrimental, in my opinion. Without the internet and its wealth of distractions, there's nothing that a laptop can do that a notebook can't in this situation.

Solutions would have to incorporate either a different teaching style or a different notetaking method, or both. Obviously, in a more project-based environment, there would be a great use for computers. However, in your average 200 person undergraduate class, there's not a lot of opportunity for project work without overtaxing the TAs' grading muscles.