Opinion | Columns

Core classes must change for digital age

It’s time that we accept certain realities: Digital media has overtaken its physical predecessor. We see this trend in music, television, and journalism. CDs, DVDs, and newspapers have fallen out of style in favor of digital copies, easily accessible from our mobile devices and computers. This same fate will befall books in the future. But are our iconic, tome-heavy Core classes—namely Contemporary Civilization and Literature Humanities—prepared for the mostly digital future of education?

It’s not presumptuous to call electronic devices, such as the iPad and Kindle, the future of education—in fact, it’s the present. In early 2013, for example, iTunes U (an educational app) had downloads surpassing 1 billion; later in the year, Apple announced that it had sold 4.5 million iPads to schools in the United States and 8 million total to educational facilities worldwide. 

At Columbia, students have a financial incentive to purchase e-books, especially for CC and Lit Hum—the majority of the texts for both classes can be downloaded for free on iBooks for the iPhone and for the Kindle app on Android devices. This is financially far better than dropping over $200 on a box set of books. Moreover, these devices and their respective apps have been designed to allow for taking and easily accessing notes. I’ll be the first to admit I enjoyed reading David Hume over break—not on account of his writing style, but because I read the text on my phone. As an obsessive notetaker, using my phone felt liberating.

I have no intention of initiating a debate over which reading medium is better—compelling arguments exist both for traditional books and e-books, and in the end, it boils down to personal preference. If you’re looking for a nostalgia-tinged listicle on why the smell of paper is the best thing ever or an environmentally-tinged endorsement of E Ink displays, look elsewhere. 

Instead, it’s more important that we ask exactly how Columbia classes, especially Contemporary Civilization and Literature Humanities, intend to adapt to changing technology. Contemporary Civilization and Literature Humanities are just another reaffirmation of the lasting power of printed text, but the next generation of students won’t share our nostalgia for traditional books—e-books are their reality. We have to be conscious of that and respond accordingly. It’s time for students and the administration to consider how to effectively integrate electronic devices in Core classes. Otherwise, we’ll soon be faced with a student body that’s more comfortable reading on electronic devices than being taught by professors that misunderstand and prohibit the use of these devices.

One CC professor I spoke to told me that electronic devices create an atmosphere that isn’t conducive to the Core seminar setting. That’s hard to dispute—the ease with which we can multitask on electronic devices is at odds with the attentive atmosphere demanded of a CC discussion section. Sometimes unconsciously, almost mechanically, I’ll open my laptop, open a new tab, and peruse Facebook. Sometimes I’ll do it with a Facebook tab already open, without even giving it a second thought.

However, getting distracted is not a phenomenon that originated with electronic devices. I’ve doodled in my notebooks and fallen asleep in class more times than I dare to admit. While devices certainly afford students a greater variety of ways by which to slack off, ultimately, it’s the student’s responsibility to pay attention. So it’s important that we ask: How do professors combat distractions today? And how can these same techniques be applied to electronic devices?

Another interesting question that arises is the validity of testing. Some tasks, like passage identification, may become obsolete with the search function. Given the growing proliferation of electronic devices, by what criteria will we be measuring the skills of our students 10, 15, and 20 years from now?

I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of the questions Columbia will be facing in the future. What of plagiarism, finding page numbers, and matching editions? Professors teach CC in wildly different ways, and ultimately implementation will differ across the sections. Still, guidelines need to be considered for the digital age. We’re complacent, and yet, it’s important that we consider these questions now, and not 10 years down the line.

Mikhail Klimentov is a Columbia College sophomore with prospective majors in computer science and political science. Humor Me runs alternate Wednesdays.

To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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ree4 posted on

"So it’s important that we ask: How do professors combat distractions today? And how can these same techniques be applied to electronic devices?" Why is inattention the professors' problem and not the students'? Professors are not in the law enforcement or entertainment industries.

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Mikhail posted on

Hey ree4,
I actually mentioned earlier in that same paragraph that it's the student's responsibility to pay attention. That said, some professors do call out students who appear to be zoning out or not paying attention; my question is whether or not that kind of policing will still be valid/possible with electronic devices. By no means am I trying to hoist this responsibility onto the professors.

Thanks for commenting!

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Anonymous posted on

The resale value of books seems to be overlooked here. I drop $100-150 on Core books not just because I prefer paper, but because I know that at the end of the year I can make it all back by selling it to another person. That's still not possible with e-books.

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Mikhail posted on

Hey anon,
The thing about ebooks, especially for Core classes, is that they're free. We get to keep free books, with our notes, with everything, and carry them around always. Which outweighs paper books.
That said, I think we need to concern ourselves with questions of integration of electronic devices into the classroom for the next generation of students. We may have certain preferences now, but we've got to preempt a different set of preferences from future students.
Thanks for weighing in!

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Anonymous posted on

Where are you getting all the core books for free? They are all five bucks or higher on apple

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Anonymous posted on

more male strip teases at Columbia, please

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CC '17 posted on

I don't get the point of this article. Is this even an issue, and why should we make it one other than "the times are achangin'"?
There is a girl in my Lit Hum class who uses an iPad to read the texts, and she takes notes on it as well. The teacher doesn't mind, she seems to perform just fine, and everyone else is satisfied with their print books. Why fix what isn't broken?

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Jose Mourinho posted on

Not sure where this article takes the reader. If the underlying notion is that the manner in which we learn will be altered by technology then I think you would be onto something interesting. As it stands the article reads: more and more kids are going to get kindles for christmas. I blame the editor

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