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Computers, laptops and cellphones in class are distractions from the serious business of thinking, the authors argue. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Computers, laptops and cellphones in class are distractions from the serious business of thinking, the authors argue. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

balot and orwin

Why we are weaning our students from electronic noise Add to ...

Ryan Balot and Clifford Orwin are professors of political science, University of Toronto.

Contrary to what some will tell you, academic freedom is alive and well on Canadian campuses. It includes the right to urge contrarian arguments – which both of us do freely, without ever issuing a trigger warning – and also the right to teach as one sees fit. We have recently seized on the latter to initiate a major innovation in the large introductory course that we share.

Like many innovations, ours is a rediscovery. The past has its gems, often difficult to appreciate among the blur of the present. We’ve decided to retrieve one of them by banning all electronic devices from both the course lectures and the discussion sections. We’re not the first to take this step, and are grateful to our predecessors, but as yet these are few.

Our students must be disappointed and bemused. They’ve spent so much on those glittering laptops, tablets and cellphones. Canadian universities have embraced the wired classrooms, outfitting them with WiFi. They preach endlessly about how technology improves the learning experience. And who wants teaching assistants patrolling the aisles asking errant students to power down or leave the lecture hall?

Our own experience tells a different story. In fact, two stories. The first is that students use laptops for many foolish things, from watching reruns of The Wire to playing solitaire or Internet shopping or online betting. They thereby waste not only their own class time but that of others. A few inconsiderate students shouldn’t be allowed to distract the class.

Our other story is less obvious but equally powerful. Teachers often meet a former student whose experience is relevant to this matter. It may be a middle-aged lawyer who approaches you on a busy street, or a young woman working at the local bank. They took the course, struggled to understand the books, discussed them with other students, sweated over the challenging essays, posed a question or two in class. As a result, they report, they’ve come to think differently about politics – and sometimes even about life.

We don’t pretend to be life-changing geniuses. We merely try our best to teach the books of some. That means difficult books from other times and places, mind-bending works such as Plato’s Republic and Machiavelli’s The Prince. These thinkers won’t instruct our students on how to approach Ontario’s labour disputes or what to make of Brexit or how to solve the global refugee crisis. Our goals are both more modest and more ambitious: to teach our students to read carefully, to analyze complex arguments and to develop a richer vocabulary than that currently available for thinking about fundamental political questions.

We can’t ignore the complexities of our classroom situation. University policy requires us to allow students registered with accessibility services to use computers to take notes as needed.

Aren’t we risking violating confidentiality by exposing the status of such students for all to see? Yes, we are. So, again respecting university policy, we will also permit computer use to students who volunteer to upload their notes to the accessibility website. This will preserve confidentiality for all.

Can we be certain that all students will benefit from our new policy? No, we can’t. But research suggests that students learn and remember more when they take notes by hand. That very process encourages them to write selectively and therefore thoughtfully, putting the ideas into their own words. This is already a step toward understanding.

Most importantly, our own experience tells us how difficult it is to achieve the concentration necessary for thought with the Internet at our fingertips. That’s as true outside the classroom as inside. It’s so tempting to check a fact or retrieve a half-forgotten name or idea. Dedekind cuts, fermions, the latest volley between Clinton and Trump, even Kanye’s girlfriend – who can keep up with it all? We can’t, but we hold such ephemeral facts less important to an education than thinking. And thinking thrives on silence or on dialogue with other human voices, when electronic noise has faded. We hope to help wean our students from that noise. Our new policy is a small step, but we’re convinced that it’s in the right direction.

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