Conventional wisdom tells us that technology in the classroom is an unparalleled educational tool. What kind of outmoded institution would want to limit students’ access to technology? Professors escape their stereotypical role as Luddites as their once chalk-coated hands now grasp wireless laser pointers.
The zeitgeist of us Millennials is a blind devotion to technology and a hubristic notion that we can and should be multi-tasking at all times. Elementary school PTSAs argue for tablets over notebooks, University treasurers increase the budget for classroom technology and Wesleyan students perpetually complain about the weakness of AirWes in PAC. However, now that these initiatives have effectively led to the technological bombardment of educational institutions, it is important to step back from the fetishization of Silicon Valley and explore the potential consequences of this technology overdose.
We have all undoubtedly been the culprits of using our computers during class for unrelated entertainment. I am confident that the vast majority of us have perused BroBible or checked emails while pretending to download the PowerPoint off of Moodle. I can assure you that you are not the only one who can be seemingly engaged in the class discussion while checking ESPN. And no, you are not the only person who has skillfully mastered the fine art of tab-switching. I speak from a position of understanding and culpability, not one of condescension, as I all-too-often find myself checking the weather for the week after next instead of taking notes.
The psychological theory of cognitive dissonance seems to play a role in students’ use of laptops in class. The theory argues that dissonance, or inconsistencies between elements of cognition (i.e. beliefs, attitudes, and behavior), leads to psychological discomfort which upsets a cognitive equilibrium. Presumably, most of us believe in the importance of a good education and realize that the ability to pay full attention in class while retaining as much information as possible is severely compromised when laptops are open. For those who value the intellectual class experience that Wesleyan professors and peers provide, the behavior of distractedly using a laptop in class belies these values.
This theory further contends that in order to reduce the stress and tension resulting from an inconsistency between these elements, we employ strategies such as: changing one of the elements causing the dissonance, seeking alternative knowledge that decreases the significance or truth of a dissonant element, avoiding situations or people that would expose the dissonance and/or changing one’s social environment. To ease this psychological tension resulting from the internal hypocrisy—to justify half-listening to the presenter or doing work for other classes—we use many of these reduction strategies. We may attempt or pretend to change our attitude towards education (“This class is stupid and I’m not learning anything anyway.”), seek information or confirmation that makes the dissonance less significant (“I never pay attention and I did well on my last test,” or “I’m on nytimes.com so I’m still doing something intellectual.”), or even change our social environment by choosing a seat in the back row where a) no one can see what you’re looking at and b) you are surrounded by people who are similarly using their laptops unproductively. While these methods do initially alleviate the discomfort that results from the conflict between the belief that learning is important and attending class is helpful and the desire for an effective and convenient distraction during a boring lecture, it is impossible to deny the challenge of maintaining focus in a class while Safari is open.
From an economic perspective, the unproductive use of the Internet in class is a costly decision. If you consider the extraordinary economic cost of a college course, especially at a notoriously expensive private college like Wesleyan, there is something undeniably privileged about using your laptop in class. According to Wesleyan University’s Financial Aid webpage (which I ironically found while browsing the website during Intro to Environmental Toxicology), the average cost of tuition (which excludes room, board and other fees) is $48,704 per academic year. With 14 weeks in each semester, this translates to $24,352 for each semester and about $1,739 per week. Students at Wesleyan typically take four classes each semester, which meet for 80 minutes an average of two and a half times per week. Thus, your 9 a.m. History of Rock and R&B class (or that “Fuck it, I’ll just skip this class,” extra two hours of sleep) had a $173.94 price tag. So, the guy who just wasted a mere five minutes of class time buying Hazelnut Latte Keurig pods should add about $11 to his order’s total.
Although these calculations are simplistic, and the realistic economic impact is perhaps exaggerated, it nonetheless exposes the undeniable aspect of privilege that stems from extraneous in-class laptop use. Additionally, while the socioeconomic issue of unequal access to technology is beyond the scope of this article, I find it crucial to mention the underlying privilege in the ability to bring a laptop to class; not all students can afford a personal computer, let alone the potential academic consequences in which their in-class use can result.
I do believe that having a laptop in class can be extremely beneficial when used properly. I also find it doubtful that I, and most others, will be able to completely eradicate inappropriate use of the Internet. We should, however, close our extra tabs and make a conscious effort to respect the teachers, meaningfully participate in class discussion, and appreciate the opportunity costs of distraction. There are five weeks left of classes but infinite weeks remain for mindlessly wandering the Internet; I think Buzzfeed can wait.
Solomon is a member of the class of 2018.