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HANNAN: Tangled web: The unrecognized value of internet as learning resource

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In this increasingly high-tech digital age, we are accustomed to having technology involved in every aspect of our lives. When used properly, computers have the ability to make tasks simpler and more efficient. We have only just begun to tap into this powerful potential.

Technology is pervasive, and its growth shows no signs of slowing. Many college students, soon to be young professionals, are scrambling to keep up with the constant digital progress so as not to get caught between the older generations who are already stably employed and younger generations who are inherently more computer literate.

The classroom seems to be a natural and ideal setting to develop computer skills through the integration of new technology and traditional teaching methods.

Beyond expanded information access, laptops also allow students a better means for organized note-taking than standard pen and paper. Those of us with less-than-neat handwriting or a tendency to doodle are able to quickly type detailed notes with word processors. Organizing these notes within a structured file storage system contained in one hard drive is much more convenient than carrying different notebooks and folders for every class.

But we are having difficulty separating the productivity of computers from their entertainment features. Marquette, like hundreds of other colleges, maintains explicit in-class laptop usage policies. Among other factors, a significant reason for the rule is its potential to be a distraction, a belief validated by a variety of research studies. The studies claim that laptops are empirically proven to distract both the students using them, and the students nearby.

With the amount of time we spend on our computers, I don’t think any of us need a double blind experiment to come to the same conclusion.

Regardless of what you’re doing on your laptop, be it browsing the web, posting on social media, listening to music or watching Netflix, it is very easy to become fixated on the screen and ignore your surroundings. However, I don’t think this fact alone is enough to completely write off the value of computers in a classroom setting.

Although many of the entertainment features are obvious distractions, they grant easy access to an unprecedented amount of information that can supplement normal classroom learning.

Engaged students often pose thought provoking questions during class periods that require professors to conduct research in their free time before answering at a later date. But I have been present in multiple classes where this process was expedited to a total of about five seconds via a Google search.

This is just one of many educational benefits that arise from students having all of the information in the world at their fingertips.

Of course, we cannot sell short the importance of knowledgeable teachers leading classes, as computers cannot provide the same kind of personalized one-on-one interaction. However, there is no doubt that students would benefit from having technological resources to address any individual questions they have.

It is easy to understand the university administration’s fear of laptops disrupting learning, as they create a strong temptation to check Facebook instead of listening to lectures. But the fact is, we have a very limited time to overcome that temptation. Once we enter the professional world we’ll be expected to function efficiently with computers every day. Most jobs will require us not only to stay focused while working with computers but also to be well-versed in using them to complete tasks. Why not develop these skills now?

We’ve reached the point where teaching computer programming as an elementary school subject is being  seriously discussed by political leaders. Few people will dispute the value of advanced computer skills, so it makes sense that we want to help our children to develop them at a young age. What doesn’t make sense is why we don’t feel the same way about students within higher education.

Fear of distraction is causing us to miss a crucial opportunity to set ourselves up for future success. All I ask is that we be allowed to make the decision ourselves. Students are well aware of both the positive and negative capabilities computers can have on learning. It is our responsibility to determine which of these capabilities we will pursue.

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