Globe Editorial

College: Student, unplug thyself

April 26, 2011

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College classrooms are alive with the sound of fingers on keyboards, but not all those students staring into laptops are taking notes. Some are trading stocks, buying shoes, or checking Facebook. The distracted are becoming so distracting that some college professors — at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, no less — think it’s time to unwire the halls of higher education. They’re right.

The standard model has served universities reasonably well since the Jurassic Period: Professors stand in front of a classroom, sharing their knowledge and asking probing questions. The boldest students try to impress their instructor with the maturity of their insight; the less ambitious at least pretend to listen. If they snooze, they do it quietly.

But as Sunday’s Globe noted, Wi-Fi and social-media addiction are destroying those arrangements. Professors compete with YouTube and Twitter for students’ attention. Worse yet is the perception that whatever the professor is babbling about can be Googled later — no late-night library runs required.

Yet a good education still requires an active exchange of information between professor and student. It’s harder for that to happen when one of them is cruising Craigslist. Wary of seeming behind the times, some colleges have encouraged the problem by extending Wi-Fi to lecture halls. This was a mistake. If students won’t unplug on their own, colleges should do it for them.