Death in the classroom (2/5)


This post is excerpted from a much longer piece I once wrote to explain the genesis of my policy on phones in the classroom. It continues where the preceding post left off. (A number of my original citations for this section have gone missing, which I’ll attempt to restore at another time.)

(1450 words)

The Pen-and-Paper Lab (2)

Study here, get world-class Wi-Fi

For college administrators there’s a bigger agenda at work. They’re plagued by chronic underfunding, poor student morale and the conundrum of the university’s would-be role in the job market. Digital technologies are the go-to panacea for all that ails them. Buying flashy new gear that’s blazingly fast and easy to use is far more appealing as a remedy than overhauling the curriculum or training academics to teach better. A big black box with blinking lights that only the IT guys understand is one thing. On the other hand, tinkering with long-standing faculty roles is perceived as a threat to vested interests, not as a remedy. In the ivory tower, territory beats reform every time. 

The prevailing beliefs about the unfailing role of technology are as entrenched on campus as they are anywhere. Educators assume the newest devices and software will get students learning more effectively — doubting Thomas’s and other Luddites need not apply. They treat the inattention promoted by social media and other digital distractions as happenstance collateral damage. Among the biggest boosters of this warped vision are the tech firms lined up to share in the multi-billion-dollar ed-tech juggernaut. Building on its first foray into the education sector decades ago, Apple wasn’t content to rest on its laurels, announcing in 2012 that it was going to“reinvent” textbooks and curriculum as part of a new educational initiative. In more recent years, however, Google has been gobbling up market share and dominating the educational-industrial complex. Making everything “free” — at least financially speaking — hasn’t hurt [see endnotes for sources].

Free or not, those who develop and sell educational technology have always made bold claims about how their stuff can help teachers teach better and students learn better. But for all universities except the most prestigious, ed tech has now acquired the much bigger and more crucial role of not merely supporting student efforts but attracting more students in the first place.

Blame competition. At the top of the food chain we have Stanford, Harvard, et al., where there’s fierce competition among applicants to be accepted, and famously low acceptance rates. For lesser institutions, on the other hand, there’s fierce competition to snap up applicants and their money — especially foreign students, who often pay three times the tuition while being allowed to meet lower entrance standards. Job One for most educational institutions today isn’t to provide a rich learning experience. It’s to attract paying customers and take market share away from the competition.

Administrators fight for their student-customers as though they’re selling condos, complete with the appeal to excited feelings about “lifestyle” features. Colleges don’t want to challenge students. They want to give them the same kind of warm, fuzzy feeling they get when buying their first car. Freedom! Speed! Multiple on-board processors!

Educational institutions have always conjured with their brands, like anybody selling a service, but campus marketers have branched out in a new direction. At Toronto’s York University, where I’ve taught for years, the official Latin motto is Tentanda via, roughly speaking, “The way must be tried.” This sentiment, like the Latin language itself, is out of place today as a marketing message. As higher education has been democratized, the sell has been focused more and more explicitly on giving students what they want — or think they want. If that sounds like a mainstream business selling into a highly competitive market in which the customer is usually right, that’s because it is.

York’s post-Latin marketing motto reaches new heights of me-generation candor: “This is my time.” This four-word assertion, part of a campaign that has won five North American marketing awards, sums up beautifully the treatment of students as entitled customers who are convinced they’re in charge of their education. There’s not much room here for a sense of duty or higher calling, or trying some “Way” you don’t quite grasp. All that’s left is the conspiratorial hint that, liberated for now from both parents and job market, you can do pretty much what you like.

To suggest that each of the 50,000 full-time students on the York campus is receiving meaningful “me” time is marketing malarkey. There is a cult of the personal on campus, but it’s not about personal growth or self-development. It’s about marking time on social media to stave off the most difficult and arduous aspect of being in a classroom, namely, making the effort to learn something.

This post-modern campus ethos marks the triumph of self-indulgence over learning in North American classrooms. Make no mistake — this is not seen by the participants as an aberration, just the opposite. It’s a powerful selling point for bringing more students into the fold, along with their phones and social media accounts. In tech jargon, making classroom time your personal phone time is a feature, not a bug.

Formally acknowledged or not, a student’s ability to do all the things she wants to do using campus facilities has become the hallmark of what’s considered a “good” education. So as students make increasingly heavy use of their personal technologies, life on campus becomes unimaginable without 24/7 access to everything. You may have a bigger, shinier sports stadium than the other guys but that won’t score much unless you also have a state-of-the-art campus Wi-Fi network with lots of bandwidth (read “very fast”) that can scale quickly as demand grows.

The selling of higher education on the coattails of digital technology has been a huge gift to vendors and a wet dream for college administrators — almost as much as it is for students. Unlike aiming for better instructors or higher testing standards, better technologies can be had for mere money, without the fuss and bother of debating core values. A newer black box is by definition a better black box, as long as we’ve got the budget. That outlook also happens to make a perfect fit with what students expect. They get to stay immersed in tech at all times, a state of euphoria rivaling the appeal of sex and beer. Students can also revel in the feeling that the campus grownups share their tech priorities.

College students are at the bleeding edge of Wi-Fi expansion. They use their networked devices far more than most and are heavy consumers of “bandwidth-intensive” applications like streaming video — applications that use a lot of data. It’s no surprise this insatiable demand doesn’t suddenly stop when students pull into the campus parking lot. They want their ubiquitous online access so badly that the impact on campus resources, especially Wi-Fi networks, has left IT leaders “reeling,” as one vendor puts it.

This particular vendor — which like others has a big commercial interest in a growing Wi-Fi market — cites research that puts connectivity at the very top of student priorities: “[A]n extraordinary 90% of all college students look at Wi-Fi as an essential tool critical to their success — to the point that they wouldn’t even think of going to a school that doesn’t offer fast, reliable and ubiquitous wireless connectivity.”

Even if campus authorities could manage to track it, trying to figure out what kind of stuff is getting transported across their networks would be an unsavory invasion of privacy. And we’d still be stuck with the problem of judging what’s educational and what isn’t. Who’s to say? I’ve heard plenty of students allege that, be it online or in real life, Prof. Tweedface is so boring as to be incapable of inspiring anyone to learn anything. Hence they don’t see his lectures as exactly “educational.” On the other hand, if you’re interested in animal husbandry as a career, maybe you can learn something helpful from videos of miniature pigs nestling in teacups.

I’d like to think reasonable people would say spending hundreds of millions on teacup pigs and smoking cats is not a good use of educational funds. But being or sounding reasonable is unlikely to lead to a more sensible way of allocating educational resources. IT departments are spending big upgrade money to ensure students sitting in classrooms by the thousands can have fast access to whatever they desire. That may make their campus part learning resource and part summer camp. But no IT admins in their right mind are going to say out loud that students are wasting network resources by sending videos of cute creatures, human or otherwise, over Instagram and Snapchat. If students want more bandwidth on the campus Wi-Fi network so they can be entertained, then more bandwidth they shall have.