Last fall, a Harvard Crimson staff writer drummed up some controversy when he wrote about how his peers regularly check Facebook in class because they're bored by lecturing professors. Well, in his search for a more dimly-lit space that would make projected images easier to see, Yale art history professor Alexander Nemerov stumbled onto a way around student's online multitasking. The new auditorium for his winter survey course, one of the most popular classes on campus, doesn’t have a Wifi signal.
"In the past many students in the lecture were doing Facebook or email or all kinds of things on their computers,” Nemerov told the Yale Daily News. "So for me it’s better if there’s a room where that is not possible." Mobile phone signals also disappear in the room, which makes it impossible for students to even click "like" on a friend's status through a smartphone.
Moving the class to the wireless-free room has meant that Nemorov had to cap the class enrollment at 270 students, down from the usual 450 students. While that may disappoint some Yale's undergraduates, Nemerov, who is known for giving engaging lectures, prefers a more focused, albeit smaller class. He told The Economist that even when students say they can pay attention to both the class lecture and their Facebook page, he's seen "overwhelming evidence to the contrary from their personal lives and grades."
Some commenters at The Economist aren't taking kindly to Nemorov's decision. Given advances in technology, one commenter said, there's no reason "to have a 250 or 500 person lecture." Another suggested that all lectures be posted online and the class should turn into a web-based discussion. Still another noted that in the time before internet, students passed notes and doodled on their notebooks. "If Dr. Nemerov cannot hold his class' attention with his words no kind of trickery will help—at best they will just doze instead—is this better?"
True, students have always doodled, talked, or slept in lectures, sometimes distracting their classmates while doing so. And yes, technology—like the Learning Catalytics model being pioneered at Harvard—should be used as a tool to enhance learning. But Nemerov is also right to express concern about student's ability to pay attention and focus for 60 minutes.
There's so much talk these days about colleges needing to prepare students for the jobs of the future—having to sit and listen attentively, take notes, and synthesize the information being conveyed is a key skill for any number of professions. However, it's only a matter of time before Nemerov's wireless-free haven gets connected to a signal. When that happens, he'll have to find another solution to get students to check back in to learning.