I was just struck by this in recent discussions about instituting a no laptop policy in the classroom. It was so self-evident that maybe it's just obvious, but I hadn't thought about it in quite this way before. If you want to teach and run your class as you did in the nineties (or as others did in the nineties), then it makes sense to institute a no laptop policy (and obviously a no phone policy) in your classroom. Basically, in order to adopt those practices one has to recreate the technological-material conditions of the period. Now, as it turns out, those conditions in the nineties were much like the conditions throughout the 20th century, at least for humanities classes. The key materials of desks, chairs, lights, books, paper, pens, chalk, etc. had been functionally the same for decades. It's a little naive, but still understandable, that one would misrecognize these historical conditions for absolute ones.
That is, one might conclude that teaching/learning can only take place in the 20th century, or in conditions that simulate the era.
The last decade gave us wifi and 3g and now all our students have networked devices. These can cause any number of challenges to the 1990s classroom, but the most common complaint is that they are a source of distraction. The problem is that there is little to do with the anachronistic laptop in the 90s classroom, except perhaps remediate it as a notebook or tape recorder. Once connected to a network, however, the device can only introduce media that does not fit into the 90s dynamic of either the lecture or class discussion.
As such we are left with an obvious and pointed question: what are the teaching and learning practices of the networked classroom? No doubt there are people out there doing that work, and those of us who have taught in computer labs have related, relevant experiences. In both cases, it's a matter of turning the focal point away from the professor. Even in the class discussion format, among faculty committed to "decentering" the classroom, conversation generally runs through the professor, or at least the professor steers conversation through its iterations. As we have discovered, nothing decenters the classroom quite like a room full of laptops and smartphones, eh? The networked students is only partly in the classroom and is partly distributed.
There's no doubt that students can lack a sense of how to use the network appropriately. There are a number of studies now that suggest that while students have certain kinds of digital literacies, they lack the ability to do effective research.
So here's a crazy idea, rather than telling students not to use their devices in our presence we instead teach them appropriate uses? After all, in the humanities, we spend a great deal of time, years really, teaching students how to read texts, mark texts, take notes, conduct research in a print library, and produce print documents. This is what the 90s classroom did. We modeled this activity in the classroom, right? Today we could model network practices for our disciplines.
The hardest part is recognizing that the objectives of the last century are not absolute. Instead, students will learn different things in different ways.