Oh the horror, the horror of that clicking. The nonstop, sadistic cackling of keyboards, as they join in with tens of others, morphing into a never-ending cacophony of sound. The odd student, with a notepad and pen, stands as an island of serenity amongst a sea of cold screens. Many of which are logged into familiar and colorfully distracting websites, beckoning every eye stationed behind.
The professor, lecturing at the front of the room, is forced to compete. She or he is helpless as so many are sucked into the technological vortex, never to be heard from again. In essence, every class is a cage match between the Internet; basically a one-stop shop for everything entertaining, and one lone person attempting furiously to make theory entertaining.
In almost every Laurier Brantford class, this is standard. In fact, in nearly every university classroom in North America, this is considered totally normal. Yet, should it be? Widespread professor fatigue, multiple studies linking this type of multitasking with lower levels of productivity, and student’s own anecdotal tales of being distracted by the glowing screens of their peers, should be enough to say that in an academic sense, the answer is probably no. Free will, and self-determination are all well and good, but when they become an impediment to the learning of others, most would agree, we have an issue at hand. Logically then, this should be enough to prompt action. Unfortunately, every Canadian University must not only act as an institution of higher learning, but also as a business. The latter is what blurs these lines.
While wireless internet in the classroom may be a powerfully distracting force, so much so that some professors take to walking up and down aisles during lectures to check on screens, nearly every Canadian university feels compelled to provide it. This includes prestigious names like McGill and Queens. Yes, their top tier students are just as hypnotized. A survey done by Online Colleges, attempts to make sense of this. They found in 2011 that sixty per cent of perspective students wouldn’t attend a university that doesn’t provide free, readily available wifi on campus, making it a competitive necessity. On top of this, seventy-three per cent of these same students believe it is important for their academic success.
Academic success, coincidently, is yet another term that students and faculty don’t always see eye to eye on. Traditionally, education was a privilege lauded as an exhausting and uncomfortable exercise, in line with Plato’s metaphor of a bright, permeating light bearing into your skull. Not the image that most campus recruiters really want to paint for expectant twelfth graders. Today, with university education perceived as a necessary step before a career, more and more students view their degree as a means to an end; nothing more than a formality, acquired without having to put the effort in. It’s an attitude that would explain the glazed over expressions and flashing computer screens that can be spotted in any given lecture. I know that I’ve been guilty at times. It’s an infectious apathy that breeds a certain type of learning culture; one that’s accented by such unsavory realities as grade inflation and lowered entrance standards.
This dichotomy is painful for old institutions trying to be relevant to the new. But it seems like an even more painful experience for new institutions trying to rise in the ranks. Fearful of being passed over or labeled out of touch, they have no other choice but to rush head first into a predicament that other professors and students all over the globe, are currently negotiating and renegotiating. It’s an issue that brings up many important and disturbing realities, including our reliance on technology, the commoditization of learning and the slow suffocation of learning for learning’s sake.
All of this can’t help but raise a very fundamental question. Do the market and education really go hand in hand? Or are there fissures in the system, cracks and clashes, that force us to face the modern university’s most troubling conundrum: If in business the customer is always right, how do we tell students that sometimes they’re wrong?
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