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Disruptive Technology Covertly Enters the Classroom

You cannot see it, it makes no noise and carries no scent, and unless you are blessed with special electromagnetic powers, you will be unable to physically touch what has the potential to be the most disruptive technology to enter the hallowed classrooms of Aldrich. Sure, I mean “disruptive” in the sense that Professor Clayton Christensen might agree with because of this technology’s ability to unseat its predecessors even though it may be slower, less reliable and more expensive initially. That disruptiveness however is the concern of technology vendors, not HBS students who pay almost nothing for it. Instead, the danger that lurks has more to do with this technology’s ability to degrade the Socratic learning environment that serves as the very underpinning of this school. At the same time however, it holds the power to bring the sophistication in our learning experience to another level.

The technology I refer to is the wireless LANs that have been extended beyond Spangler into other areas on campus including Aldrich. That’s right, the January Cohort classrooms in Aldrich are already equipped with Wireless LANs and the rest will likely be up and running in a few months. All it takes is a $135 wireless Ethernet card and you can be surfing away.

Before you read on, I should let you know that I am actually a technophile and Section F Co-Techrep. I have a deep appreciation for the latest and greatest technology. Phil Black calls me “gadget man”. I have been involved in high tech for years; my point being that by no means should you dismiss my views as an old economy grudge against change. You will soon notice, that I am not arguing to block this technology, but rather shedding some necessary light on its pros and cons without the “religion” that often muddles such issues.

As is always the case, the technology itself is not the threat, but rather the hazard stems from the abusive use of applications that a Wireless LAN (read: Internet access) will enable. Sure, we are all adults here and we abide by the Community Standards that are in place. But we are also human, and when it comes to the use/abuse of technology, the Community Standards are less clear. Just envision the new meaning of Instant Messaging in the context of an HBS class with wireless Internet access. Suddenly students are equipped with a crafty means to pass notes without the professor noticing, perhaps. While this could certainly remove some of the isolation and fears of a cold call, it could also promote negativity that would just as certainly take away from class discussions and our individual learning experiences. This school is predicated on the “if you’ve got something to say, speak up and say it to all” mentality which potentially stands in stark contrast to a technology that transmits communication invincibly to selected recipients.

Obviously this technology holds a lot of promise in enhancing our learning experience as well. We need only think of the Beer Game we played in Shad for our TOM class to appreciate how nice this technology would really be. Similarly, it would have been nice to avoid the print labs after taking our Finance exam a few weeks ago. I was time stamped at 12:57 and left the print lab at 1:43. I wish I had a wireless connection then. I do not believe however that it would be a good thing to have students surfing the Web in real-time during class for answers to the cases. In fact, I think that this type of unstructured research would be detrimental for the same reason that we are not supposed to find out “what happened” the night before we discuss a case. The logic being that certain current events might distract us from the key “take-aways” of the case. That said however, it would be nice to be able to receive a spreadsheet from a professor or be guided to a database with comps that we could use to derive a discount rate. Truly we cannot appreciate the applications of the future until faculty, staff, and students are given the opportunity to try it.

I must admit that initially I actually opposed wireless Internet access in the classroom, but after intense debate I conceded to Co-Techrep Todd Feinman who convinced me that denying such promising technology from entering the classroom would also go against an underpinning of this school just as strong as the Socratic structure of the classes, namely the honor system. To have Community Standards and deny students the ability to have wireless Internet access would be a double standard.

So what do we do? How do we deal with this technological change? As with all technology we must be careful not to adopt and waste time with it just for technology’s sake. Instead, we should simply maximize it as the tool it is, without abusing it. In line with the Community Standards this school has never tried to monitor and police students. Let’s not take this for granted as this technology enters the classroom. When a cell phone goes off, Section law goes a long way in reprimanding and penalizing. For instance, since NF began making students dance in front of everyone if their phone rings during class, the number of beeps and rings declined dramatically. Self-rule goes a long way within the sections at this school and wireless Internet access will only be disruptive in a negative sense if we let it. We are fortunate enough to receive this technology and the latitude to control its use. We are setting an example for classes to follow, so lets make sure that we use it responsibly otherwise we risk losing the benefits of the invincible.

February 20, 2001
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