Laptops in the Classroom

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Do laptops have a place in the lecture hall? An ongoing debate has raged over whether they do. At York University, the on-campus newspaper Excalibur noted that many history professors were opposed to the use of laptops in lecture halls, a discussion continued by a large departmental meeting in early January. This has not been an isolated discussion, however. In this post, I hope to provide some background to the debate by noting some of the other sites of discussion, and then break it down into what I see as the two main issues: civility and the role of the professor, as well as learning and the role of technology. Keeping this in mind, I believe that we need to reframe our teaching approach as adult education and adapt to the use of technology. Certainly, there will be times when we should close our laptops and enter into discussion, but this does not need to lead to a blanket ban of technology in our classrooms.

As wireless internet became widespread across university campuses during the early years of the millennia, different approaches appeared. Some universities, like Acadia, had already incorporated technology into almost all of their teaching through the Acadia Advantage programme (begun in 1996). Others, however, began banning these tools as distractions (as a 2003 article from the University of Saskatchewan indicates).

Lately, however, it seems to be reappearing as a serious issue. A debate played out on the GlobeCampus blog, inspired by a London Free Press article about debates at the University of Western Ontario. In University Affairs, Fred Donnelly argued that laptops heralded a return to pre-industrial notions of multitasking – factory masters imposed strict single-tasking work regimes – and should not be flatly dismissed. This earned a derisive response from Todd Pettigrew at On Campus, snorting that “while professors pat themselves on the back for being in touch and progressive, for creating a dynamic new learning environment, they are really creating an environment of increased contempt for learning and study.”

This post is focused on lecture-format instruction, rather than group work or one-on-one interaction. In this case, I feel that one of the main issues is the idea of civility and the role of the professor. Who controls the agenda in the classroom? Do we have a moral obligation towards our students – making them into ‘book-centric’ agents, strengthening their attention spans? Crucially, however, do they need to ‘mind their manners’? Do they owe it to the instructor to provide their full and undivided attention? What degree of control do course instructors and teaching assistants have over their students?

Certainly, instructors have the obligation to ensure an amendable learning environment for all. Students cannot loudly speak during lectures, as this disrupts their peers’ ability to learn. Similarly, they should not watch live-stream videos: be it NHL games, TV shows, movies, YouTube videos, etc, nor can they play video games, manage their online farms, or other such active, moving image-heavy activities. These colourful interventions draw the eye towards them and are a flashpoint for intra-student conflict. If they’re ensuring an amenable learning environment for all, professors also need to allow students with learning disabilities access to laptop computers (and the solution of banning all but those with registered learning disabilities strikes me as discriminatory and uncomfortable).

However, unobtrusively checking one’s e-mail, catching up on a quick update of how badly the Leafs are losing, or thumbing through a few BlackBerry messages is arguably different. They are less visibly stimulating, more passive (although a valid point can be made that online advertisements are becoming increasingly irritating), and I feel that they are not unduly disruptive to peers. Indeed, if some peers are distracted by this, that’s part of an issue they’ll have to deal with as they move through academic, corporate or non-profit worlds. I understand that this may be a point of contention – and I am, to some degree, making a value judgment that privileges certain kinds of activities over others. In my mind, in any case, the debate shifts from intra-student to the dynamics of student-professor respect. Do professors deserve respect from their positions alone, or does this need to be earned? Do they have an educational role beyond that of subject matter expert: are they teaching students to be ‘good, respectful citizens’ – beyond the content of their history course?

A moral responsibility towards students has long been a factor in the modern university, harkening back to the heady days of ‘in loco parentis’ (in place of the parent): women subject to curfews, same-sex dormitories, severe restrictions over reproductive rights, control over course selection, prohibiting off-campus activities and an array of political and intellectual speech. Much of this was dismantled in the 1960s through student protest and the active engagement of student governments, although small relics live on here and there. I think the laptop debate contains a moral dimension.

Yet, to me, the key point is that we are providing adult education. Students may seem young at the age of 18, but they’re now able to vote, be deployed overseas with the Forces, sign contracts and all of the trappings of legal adulthood. They are making a tremendous financial and personal sacrifice to attend university, an increasingly expensive proposition with increasingly dwindling outcomes. To support this, they’re working hours upon hours at part-time jobs, balancing interpersonal relationships, romances, family obligations, among others. A liberal arts education is about more than cost-benefit analyses, but we need to accept that students are autonomous agents with the ability to manage their own time. If they’re not disturbing other students in the class, why not let them use their laptops? Leadership and respect are transformative and earned processes.

Secondly, do laptops enhance or detract from the overall educational experience? They can draw students out of the classroom, lead to some disengagement, and are indisputable sources of some personal distraction (just as newspapers, doodling, daydreaming, editing papers for other courses, or concocting elaborate lecture hall related games). Yet for others, they let them delve deeper into a point raised in lecture, run down primary documents, take exquisitely organized notes, double-check moments when the professor might seem uncertain, and other tasks. Lest you raise an incredulous eyebrow, every single example provided here occurred in the last semester of the course I’m TAing at York. Laptops can also transform the isolated island of the lecture hall into a significant node in a broader network of knowledge. A recent study in a Calgary high school also demonstrated that “computer technology can dramatically improve the way students learn — but only if coupled with engaged teaching.”

We need to further incorporate computers into our teaching and learning processes. A survey of my undergraduate class demonstrated that all had access to a computer. Not all will have the same capabilities, however, and we do need to watch out for creating a ‘classed’ student experience where only some students can afford the latest and greatest technologies. As one student observed during our recent departmental meeting, they’re now all encouraged to buy laptops when entering the program at considerable financial cost. They now have a tool at their hand that can potentially:

  • provide unparalleled access to information
  • provide unparalleled opportunities for widespread co-operation: why not launching course wikis (everybody can dynamically edit and maybe provide ever-developing and dynamic course notes), or course twitters (allowing a counter-discussion which could both challenge and accentuate the course lectures) – what a way to transcend the arbitrary barriers between course sections or even courses across departments or the university?
  • allow us to challenge the implicit strictures imposed by pen/paper – taking notes and organizing material in their own way, rather than the one way provided by the instructor
  • transcend learning disabilities to some degree, provided students can afford individual laptop PCs
  • and more – we need to begin seriously thinking about opportunities and the structures that could make them realizable.

In the course that I teach with, we’ve launched a course twitter feed. We hope that during the lectures, students will tweet questions and reactions, creating a conversation that can exist politely alongside the master narrative provided by the course director. Then, at the mid-class break, a teaching assistant will summarize the online reaction and use that as a launchpad for a quick discussion or issues to be further developed in tutorial. Who knows if it will be successful, but we need to try. Many of our students know more about this stuff than we do, and we can learn from them.

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6 thoughts on “Laptops in the Classroom

  1. Kaitlin

    The course that I am TAing this term relies on an external website; one not connected to the university’s WebCT account. The site also features activities that can be completed for ‘achievements’, which will add up to bonus marks for the top 15 students on the website’s leaderboard.

    It’s too early to say whether the engagement of the students is because of the integration of the technology or the quality of the lecturer (I think it’s a combination of both), but at the very least it is giving students the option of surfing the course website, should they feel bored in lecture. Two weeks in and I would guess that half the students online in lecture visit the course website. Of course, there are still some playing Farmville.

    As for the policing, it’s a troubling topic. A professor at UOttawa recently outlawed all technology from the classroom. The irony? The university is (like many others) on a paperless mandate, and so students had to download the syllabus. Also, it’s next to impossible to outlaw them because of students who have special permissions. It has been suggested that those students should simply obtain special permission to bring the laptop or other technology to class, but the problem there is that you would then be singling out the student.

    I think that those professors who police or forbid laptops in the class and lecture for three hours straight are ultimately alienating a generation of students whose attention span is limited. They are also, as this post points out, missing out on a valuable opportunity to take advantage of the technology for collaborative and multimedia purposes. (Just be careful of the suggested videos that might come up when you use YouTube in class).

  2. Janice

    I’m happy to have students use laptops in class, as long as they avoid annoying FB or FPS games. As you say, there are many ways to harness these tools both for individual student benefit as well as the good of the entire class (check when a related event occurred to see if there’s a connection, say!).

    I’m interested in your use of a twitter feed to gauge the class’s reaction and retool matters at the halfway point — do you use a certain hashtag or are you using a course Twitter account (or both)?

  3. Ian Milligan Post author

    Thanks for your comments Kaitlin and Janice. I’ve never heard of an ‘achievements’ model to encourage student on-line involvement, but it’s fascinating. I assume for some it’s an addictive way to encourage participation, and moving towards a model that I seem to see more and more (not just Xbox Live, but even my ‘Kobo’ e-reader program encourages weird achievements).

    As for the twitter feed, we have both a course Twitter account but I also hope to encourage use of a certain hashtag. After gently introducing the idea last Monday, tonight we’re hopefully going to see some involvement. Let’s see if it works or not!

  4. Ian Milligan Post author

    That’s a great article, Mary. I hope universities can catch up as well! This holiday break I heard a lot of anecdotal discussion about how some elementary schools are way ahead of the curve, notably in their use of ‘interactive whiteboards.’ I haven’t seen any of these at York University, whereas they’re apparently fairly prevalent in Ontario public schools.

  5. Steven Maynard

    I’m trying very hard not to be a luddite about laptops in my lectures. I try to incorporate them when I can, asking students to look things up, for example, when we find ourselves unable to answer a question. But I worry. Last term, I assigned an historiographical essay in a second-year course. Understandably, many students were unfamiliar with the notion of historiography and so we went over it in class probably four or five different times, a few times at length. Each time I was aware that a certain number of students were more plugged into their laptops — emailing, surfing, Facebooking, etc. — than in listening to the discussion about historiography. I tend to think along the lines described by the author here, that students are adults and it’s not my role to police how they decide to use their class time. When it came time to mark their papers, I discovered some students — in most cases, the ones on their laptops — had completely missed the historiographical boat. They received low marks. Again, on some level, so what? They’re adults, they made choices, they’ll have to live with the consequences. I’m dispirited by this, but I could live with it were it not for the fact that these same students then want to complain about their low grades. And I’m forced to police and patronize: “Perhaps if you spent less time on your laptop and more time engaged in class discussion.” Having realized the error of their way, could they re-write the paper, they asked? No. That would not be fair to the students who closed their laptops, listened, asked questions, and wrote some very good historiographical essays.

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