I did my undergraduate work from 1991-1995. Before laptops were popular, or even affordable, before email really took hold, before PowerPoint and before most of the information we receive on a daily basis was digitalized. I, and the rest of the class, took notes on loose-leaf paper and organized it in a 3-ring binder or Trapper Keeper. I did my master’s degree from 1995-1997 so I had a very similar experience except that digital email was becoming popular and websites like Yahoo and Google were just born. So only a hand-full of people even knew about them. I still went to the library to do research.
When I returned to school for my doctorate degree, the digital revolution had truly transformed the academic landscape into a place unrecognizable to me. There was no pressing need to physically go to the library to do research, all the lectures were typed out on PowerPoint and most everything was archived on a course management system. Wow, I thought school in the 21st century is so much more convenient now; it’s all at the end of my fingertips. But, what I didn’t realize right away was the effort it took to organize all this digital information being thrown at me (my 3-ring binder was now a thing of the past) and how easy it was to experience information overload!
A professor in 2013 can deliver an unbelievable amount of information in 60 minutes using PowerPoint. Whereas, I remember my undergraduate biology professor physically drawing a cell and all its parts on the chalkboard with different colored chalk. He was a talented artist and watching him physically draw a cell while describing its parts certainly made it easier to understand than a quick glance of an entire cell on a PowerPoint slide shown for a few seconds.
So, for me, not only is multi-tasking and surfing a detriment to academic success, but the rate at which information is delivered can also pose a potential problem. I find myself needing to take a digital Sabbath to keep the focus necessary to carry a task to completion. I also find myself weeding through a lot of information presented in classes to find the diamond in the rough, the information necessary to help me understand and complete a task.
However, I feel we all could benefit from learning how to use our gadgets for good and not for distraction. Recently, I was at a national conference. During one of the talks, the woman beside me used her iPad in an amazing way. As the speaker was talking, he would mention a study, simultaneously the woman beside me looked up the study, downloaded it, and took notes on the talk all in real time. It was amazing. So, at the end of 45 minutes, she had downloaded all the sources mentioned as well as took notes on how the speaker used them. I thought, this is certainly an efficient way to use an iPad. Perhaps moving forward, instead of complaining about students checking Facebook or the news during class, instructors will focus on teaching them new and engaging ways to use their devices during class that will actually increase their scores instead of lowering them.