Recently I attended a lecture where the audience included a significant number of high school students. One of our most gifted teachers was lecturing and I was sitting in the audience directly behind a row of high school students, many of whom had brought their laptops to the lecture to take notes. I appreciated how conscientious they were.
Now, before I continue to talk about this experience, I want to go back to last week’s blog  where I wrote about the advantages that classroom technology, including smart boards, can bring to the learning process. I am clearly an advocate and as an educator and an economist, I understand what can now be easily done in the classroom that could not be done before.
At this lecture, the technology was not being used by the speaker though the teacher effectively introduced some drama into the presentation which did help highlight the points being made. Rather, at this lecture, the technology was being used by the students. The student in front of me was especially facile with technology. She was taking notes, responding to emails, using instant messaging and shopping on-line almost simultaneously. At least two screens were always visible on her laptop and the shopping screen appeared on a frequent basis.
I am certain that there are some individuals who can undertake all four of these endeavors simultaneously and perform them flawlessly but I am also certain the number of such individuals is miniscule. What is inevitably lost for almost anyone attempting this level of simultaneous multi-tasking is detail, context, and nuances. In shopping and in doing emails, this may or may not be a problem. But in the learning process, in listening to an important lecture, not paying attention results in sound bites rather than a fully textured educational experience. Text messaging, social media and even, to an extent, email all promote sound bite questions and answers at the expense of completeness and perhaps to some extent accuracy.
Use of technology on the part of some students can also undermine academic integrity. Cell phones, computers, the internet have all made possible more sophisticated forms of cheating and all of us have to be more vigilant in making sure such cheating is prevented and, if it does take place, dealt with firmly (but within an educational as well as punitive context). Technology also facilitates the invasion of privacy as the tragic death of Rutgers’ student Tyler Clementi makes clear to us. Here too, we need to be more vigilant to make sure that technology is not used to undermine the respect, tolerance and civility we should have for each other.
We know that students benefit greatly from the use of technology. Some of the benefits are more mundane, such as word processing; others, such as analytical tools and access to information, allow for vastly high quality student work. But with the privileges that technology provides comes the responsibility to use the technology wisely and well. All of us in higher education have a lot of work to do with our students to make that happen.