Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Laptops in Classrooms, Revisited

There has been a lot of discussion, pro and con, on the subject of laptops in the classroom. Along comes a new article from Innovate, a journal of online education, entitled "Questioning Assumptions About Students' Expectations for Technology in College Classrooms," by Sarah Lohnes and Charles Kinzer. Lohnes and Kinzer, both at Columbia University, conclude that although technology plays a large role in students' lives outside of the classroom, this doesn't necessarily mean that technology has to play a large role inside the classroom. Some students find the use of laptops in class to be "distracting and isolating," even though they rely on them outside of class for entertainment, education, and communication.

I once asked my daughter, a rising junior in college, whether she ever used her laptop in class, and was somewhat surprised when she answered no. She was the typical Net Gen student in high school--doing homework while IM'g, emailing, talking on her cell phone, and watching television. I could not, and do not, understand how anyone can multitask to this extent and do justice to any of the activities. And she could not understand why I could not understand. This is why I was surprised to hear she doesn't even take her laptop to class. She says that when she takes notes in longhand, she is better able to concentrate on what the professor and her classmates are saying. She finds that the technology actually gets in the way of the learning process. Without the laptop, she is more engaged and focused on what is going in the classroom.

I have found that as a teacher, it is rather offputting to face rows of laptops rather than rows of students. I have observed that no matter how interesting class is (admittedly, it can be a challenge to make Advanced Legal Research a compelling experience each and every time), some students with laptops will use them for non-educational activities, and this is demoralizing to me. It would be hard to ban laptops from a research class, but I do flirt with the idea from time to time.


Betsy McKenzie said...

Dear Marie,
There is hardly anything more destructive to the confidence needed to stand in front of people and teach than your students obviously texting, playing games or surfing inappropriately. At the same time, your daughter's very interesting analysis of how laptops interfere with her being "present" in class certainly ring true with comments I hear from some of our best professors. Students need to engage with teachers in class, and with other students, too. That is especially true with law teaching, but I think it's true for most any class. So, two good reasons to consider banning laptops.

However, I really like when my students, in a discussion about why a particular database, search or website behaves the way it does, suddenly announce that they see the problem, and can explain it. I am glad to have students in my class use their laptops, appropriately.

A number of years ago, I had a pair of students who seemed to be text messaging each other in class. They sat on the front row, to one side in a horseshoe classroom. It was very annoying to me and to other students. It was so hard when they would grin or giggle together, not to assume it was about me (it probably was!). I finally told them it was very distracting to me, and I thought to other students. If they wanted to continue, they would have to move to a back row and be less obvious. They stopped, did not move, and continued in class, with fair participation. I don't know if I'd be so lucky with every student, or if the tone today would let it work so well.

Laptops are the bane and benefit of my existence as a teacher.

Marie S. Newman said...

I agree with all of your comments, and it is certainly true that students found ways to distract themselves in the classroom before laptops were invented. It really is difficult, however, to make sure students are using their laptops appropriately. Doing so requires a great deal of energy and attention on the part of the instructor. I don't propose that we ban laptops from the classroom, but I do wish students would realize that they aren't getting the most out of class when they fail to pay attention and become engaged.