Mark Goldberg


Unplug the digital classroom?

Is digital technology in the classroom really helping students learn better?

The Ontario government’s 2012 white paper on education, “Strengthening Ontario’s Centres of Creativity, Innovation and Knowledge”:

Technology does more than just accelerate access to data. It can also enable new ways for students to learn from and interact with faculty and each other. Rather than faculty “transmitting” lecture data to students sitting in a hall, digital delivery of course content can free faculty in traditional institutions to engage in direct dialogue and mentorship with students. Technology is driving worldwide changes in education, and it is important that Ontario recognize and respond to these changes so that credentials from Ontario [post-secondary education] institutions hold their high value.

I might be slightly less skeptical of Ontario’s commitment to having technology “accelerate access to data” had its white paper not been released in a format that locked access to copy and paste sections. There is an interesting opinion piece in the Sunday Toronto Star, by UWO professor Doug Mann, a professor in the sociology department and in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies at the University of Western Ontario who wrote: Let’s unplug the digital classroom.

Professors muse that the classroom must “evolve or die” to become more “fun and engaging” for the modern student.

Such views are misinformed at best, crude propaganda for Apple and Microsoft at worst. The use of digital technology in higher education has promoted ignorance, not knowledge, and severely degraded basic reading, writing and thinking skills. It’s time to hit the off button.

One problem with the most enthusiastic futurists is that too many of them haven’t spent any time in the classroom in the last decade. If they had, they’d realize that digital technology is already omnipresent there, used by both students and professors. Almost all undergraduate students in North America are addicted to texting on their smartphones and checking their Facebook pages on an hourly basis. Almost all professors use computers, projectors, Power Point presentations and the Internet as part of their lectures. Calling for more digital technology in education today is like calling for more white people in the Republican party.

He provides an important opposing viewpoint.

Yes, one student in 10 actually uses them to look up relevant facts and issues, but the other nine are using classroom Wi-Fi to check their Facebook pages, email or celebrity websites. Portable computers combine all four of the general functions of digital technology: information delivery, peer communication, entertainment and procrastination. Cellphones concentrate on the last three functions and have no pedagogical purpose.

He says we should turn off Wi-Fi in classrooms and treat mobile phones like cigarettes: do your texting and update your online status outside or in designated lounges. Mann says that distance-education courses are cheap knock-offs of the real thing.

Digital technologies can be great delivery devices. But what they too often deliver has nothing to do with education.


1 comment to Unplug the digital classroom?

  • Jason

    The author is trying to close the barn door after the horse has bolted. What good will shutting off WiFi in the classroom do? It will disable any possible utility the school WiFi could provide (access to internal resources, such as intranets and printers), while students will just switch to 3G to check their Facebook pages anyway. In the meantime, it demonstrates to the students that they aren’t really thought of as adults. This doesn’t just affect the 20-something undergraduates, but also the graduate and mature students.

    I agree that non-academic use of the internet in post-secondary classrooms is profligate. One professor’s opinion, however, should not be the basis for a campus policy. Each professor should be given licence to determine the appropriate penalties for social media use in the classroom, from no penalty at all to expulsion from the classroom for the day.

    I remember well the first (and last) time I read the campus funny paper in my first-year chemistry class. My professor politely, and firmly, suggested I would be less distracted if I read it out in the lobby. As I left the front row and walked out, I saw several other students discreetly putting their own copies away. There were no papers out the following week.

    There is a vast gulf between mere WiFi internet access and true internet-enabled education. Any professor that believes “Internet-managed distance-education courses…are cheap imitations of the real thing” is not seeing the forest for the trees. Distance education should not be seen as a replacement for in-class education. However, is there any particular reason why every class in an undergraduate program must be in-class? Why is an online classroom worse than a first-year psychology or biology class, with 500+ students in a single, loud, stuffy lecture hall?

    Moreover, distance education can replace the true alternative: nothing. There are many people who could benefit from an online course, for whom in-class is simply not an option. There are professionals who could use some upgrading to help advance their career. There are single parents who can’t afford daycare or get time off from their minimum wage job. There are those who frankly don’t do well in a classroom environment. I agree that online courses should never replace all in-class education, but is the author seriously suggesting that they do no good whatsoever? If so, he should have a chat with the good folks at MIT, Harvard, Berkeley, Princeton, University of Toronto, and dozens more, who clearly see the financial and sociological value of online education. They have the potential to provide new and valuable delivery models for education in the modern age. There are bound to be missteps along the way, as in any good experiment, but the end result has so much potential it would be irresponsible to simply “hit the off button”, as the good author so eloquently suggests.