Laptops in the Classroom

A Sea of Laptops During a Lecture
A Sea of Laptops During a Lecture (Photo credit: TylerIngram)

Many of you probably saw the New Yorker article about banning laptops in the classroom.  And maybe you saw a follow-up in Slate that defended the use of laptops.  The first was circulated to me by several people.  The latter has not been.  I will, indeed, circulate the latter myself, but I have to get some stuff off my chest first.

I wanted to write this as an open letter to college professors, but decided against it.  But I do want to start with a question for college professors.  Do you all even know what goes on in K-12 schools? Do you know that many are 1:1 device places and have active learning going on in a classroom and aren’t sitting in a lecture hall listening to someone drone on?  While I agree that students should adjust to teaching styles, lecture has been proven one of the most ineffective teaching methods on the planet, as Rebecca Schuman points out in the Slate article.  In fact, Rockmore begins with a story about a colleague “seeing the light” on banning laptops, saying that his colleague noticed a sea of laptops “after he looked up from his lectern.”

Well, there’s your problem right there.  Even if your students didn’t have laptops in front of them, you wouldn’t see your students.  They’d just be a sea of faces.  I say ban the lecture, then you might see some better learning outcomes and it might alleviate some of the other problems you’re having.

Rockmore notes, “Our ‘digital assistants’ are platforms for play and socializing; it makes sense, then, that we would approach those devices as game and chat machines, rather than as learning portals.” It makes sense only if that’s how approach a device.  Part of the process of helping students in a 1:1 program is to teach them the skills to use their devices as learning portals, and yes, to help them learn to avoid distraction.  We’re doing that in K-12 schools.  Teachers are having students use laptops to hone their research and critical thinking skills, to use tools to create presentations that combine video, audio, and image, and to connect to experts in areas they’re interested in through social media and other platforms.  And they’re doing these things in classrooms.

Rockmore also states, “We’re not all that far along in understanding how learning, teaching, and technology interact in the classroom.” Maybe he’s not, but there’s research about this stuff that goes back 50 years.  Go read Seymour Papert.  Dig into any Instructional Technology book, or even, general Education book.  Like many fields, there’s not agreement on everything, but we are further along than one might think.  The Internet has been around for longer than I’ve been alive.  The web has been around for half my lifetime, and I’m in my 40s.  Your students have always had devices, have always had connectivity.  Using them in the classroom makes sense to them.

Schuman’s article touches the point in several ways, hitting on the idea of lecture as a poor teaching strategy and noting that you’re fighting a losing battle when most of these students live by their devices.  She also points out something that dovetails with another article on students, not having to do with laptops, but about treating students as the adults they are.  She says, “But even more importantly, policing the (otherwise nondisruptive) behavior of students further infantilizes these 18-to-22-year-olds.”  Sean Vallas makes the same point in his essay called “Don’t Call Them Kids.”  As he reminds us, they’re old enough to vote and go to war, so why do you call them kids.  They’re certainly old enough to decide when to pay attention to their professor and when not to.  There are, after all, natural consequences (one hopes) for not paying attention.

Schuman argues for the natural consequences of not paying attention, of learning things the hard way.  I do that even with my older high school students.  I say that I’m not obligated to repeat myself or otherwise catch you up if you’re not paying attention in class.  We discuss the issue like (gasp) grownups.  We do have policies about using things in class that aren’t class related.  I can give someone a detention for being on Facebook during class.  And I do that for my Middle Schoolers.  But for high school, I just make sure what we’re doing is interesting enough and they feel compelled enough to either do the activity at hand or pay attention to me.  As far as I’m concerned, if my students are goofing off, then it’s on me to make them want to do the work.

Schuman ends her article with a quote everyone should keep in mind:

You learn all kinds of things the hard way in college: Hooking up with your hallmate the first week of school is a bad idea. Jägermeister, Goldschläger, and Rumple Minze are not “natural companions” just because they all sound German. Add to those: Spending your econ lecture with Upworthy will tank your GPA. That’s what college is all about.

The day I find myself saying, “Kids these days . . .” is the day I know I should quit teaching.  And laptop banning is a big giant “kids these days” moment.

10 Replies to “Laptops in the Classroom”

  1. Meh. My students use laptops during the laptop portions of class, not during the note-taking portions. They can’t easily draw a normal curve on a laptop. *I* was in school when the tech revolution started and I know how difficult it can be to pay attention to the most interesting professor (or even to work on an in-class project) when my boyfriend is icqing at the same time. Nothing to do with the professor, everything to do with my slightly addictive personality.

    100% of the class spent on group work doesn’t work either– 100% discovery-based learning is also inefficient and some people don’t get anything out of group work. A mix is necessary.

    And why shouldn’t I make the learning environment more conducive for learning, both for those with addictive personalities and for those who will be distracted by someone else’s laptop? Because a student not paying attention doesn’t just hurt the student not paying attention. Ze distracts everyone around hir.

    I’ve done it both ways. I have a required math class that most of the students don’t want to take, but they need to take it. I’m already fighting math anxiety. Students learn to not be afraid of math when I don’t let them use laptops outside of in-class exercises. I get majority As, my teaching evals are stellar, kids come up to me and tell me they thought they’d never be able to do math, but now they want to take another semester. These same types of students fail the class and say I taught them nothing when I let them use laptops unchecked. You’re saying I need to be more interesting and engaging? You can’t get over math anxiety if nobody is listening.

    People choose not to circulate Schuman because her articles are mostly unresearched, unreasoned, reactionary garbage. Her stuff that I’ve seen is 100% click-bait (with a strong affinity for straw-men) and every time it’s linked I feel stupider for reading it. If there’s a warning that she wrote it I know not to click on it.

  2. I agree that teachers should do whatever they want/can to make the classroom conducive to learning, including banning laptops on occasion. I do that when we’re having class discussion. I think the main issue for this professor is the large lecture format. Even without laptops, students don’t do well in those kinds of classes.

    On the issue of distracting others. This is a real issue and one we’ve addressed with our students as well. I circulate around my room a lot, and have doled out detentions to students on Facebook or shopping sites. Not an option for most college professors, but fear of punishment generally works for us.

    I’m not saying *you* need to be interesting and engaging, but your class does. If you lecture, then yeah, it’s you. But you can create activities that are engaging as well, and it sounds like you do and that part of that is doing them without laptops.

    I’m a firm believer in moderation, in taking away privileges (like laptop use) when people can’t moderate their own behavior. But a blanket ban isn’t going to work. Yes, it’s frustrating. Yes, some students will fail because they’re on Facebook. But students are going to have to figure this out for themselves. We can help with that process, through education not all policing.

  3. There have been a few studies recently that try to access the effects of technology in the classroom that I consider useful: “The pen is mightier than the keyboard: Advantages of Longhand over Laptop Note Taking,”, Mueller & Oppenheimer (Psych Sciences, 2014); “Digital Distractions” (not yet published, news article: http://www.northwestern.edu/magazine/spring2014/campuslife/digital-distractions.html). Both these studies suggest that students who use their laptops during class perform poorly (in college lecture courses). I cite them as reasons my children shouldn’t agitate to use their laptops in class.

    In another study, laptops were used to do low-stakes, adaptive quizzing in the classroom: http://www.utexas.edu/news/2013/11/21/online-testing-boosts-performance/. The quizzing was beneficial, and would have been difficult to do without students’ access to laptops.

    I also believe that different forms of technology can be disruptive to others in the classroom, and thus cannot be treated as an individual choice. If the students have laptops, they should be part of the curricular plan.

  4. Regarding large lecture classes — it will be interesting to see their long term fate. I think, reasonably, that folks are starting to argue that if what’s being provided is a large, one-way, lecture, that the information can be delivered via video, and to an even larger group of people. And, as you say, many students are coming to college having experienced a different kind of teaching. My kiddo is taking some online classes, and complained that she doesn’t want to sit through a 60 minute lecture in the online class. Over time, I’d expect these kids to walk away from that learning format.

    Should they? Well, even though I favor direct instruction in some circumstances, I imagine that large scale lectures are going to face the same pressure that theater did, with the invention of the moving picture. They’ll need to offer something different in the classroom, to compete with the online lectures and you tube videos.

  5. bj, I definitely think those studies are worth paying attention to. I don’t think students should be sitting in a classroom with laptops open just listening to a teacher talk. If the laptops are open, they should be doing something with them. In my class, it’s programming. During discussion, I ask them to close them. If I need to do a quick lecture, I might allow laptops but ask students to demonstrate something quickly. At any moment, they know they can be called on. Since I’ve taught technology forever, I have had to come up with creative ways of dealing with the distraction of the devices we use. Not every method works for every class every time.

  6. So with what you’re saying it sounds like you actually do what *most* people do who “ban laptops.” They’re allowed when needed. They’re closed during discussion. So you are actually disagreeing with Schuman.

  7. Well, my students are younger, and I helped set the policies for our laptop program, which included the detention for using non-academic applications during class. Honestly, most students are too quick to switch to their work as I come around the room. When we’re doing project work, I stop by every single student to check on their work. We have conversations about staying on task and the distraction computers cause for others. I feel like that’s more effective than banning.

    My understanding from the New Yorker article was an outright ban: don’t bring them to class. Ever. And I’m opposed to that. And while there’s research that suggests handwriting notes is better, do we enforce that for everything? I don’t know. It seems that part of being a student is figuring out what works for you.

  8. So what you’re doing is actually even *more* than what most people who “ban laptops” do because you have enforcement! College students don’t get detentions. There’s no actual way to enforce– at the college level banning is just saying, “please don’t do this.” At most we can take a point away for participation if we have points for participation in the syllabus.

    No, you’re arguing against a straw-man, possibly because you read the Schuman article.

  9. Close the laptops when I am talking, open them when I am not. It is simple. Give a 17 year old an option of listen to the teacher talk or watch a Youtube video and the teacher will lose every time. The lecture may be the worst way of teaching but every now and then it is required to get a lot of info out quickly to a group at once. Once kids hit college it is time to grow up. Hopefully they have had a chance to learn how and when to use a laptop in high school. As high school teachers we need to make sure they know how poorly they learn when watching Youtube in class or typing notes.

  10. The other day, while I was at work, my sister stole my apple ipad and tested to see if it can survive a 30 foot drop, just
    so she can be a youtube sensation. My iPad is now broken and she has 83 views.
    I know this is completely off topic but I had to share it with someone!

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