Friday, April 23, 2010

Laptops in the Classroom

I am pleased to announce that the College of Education is moving forward with their 1:1 Laptop Program. Our goal is that all students graduating from the college have an understanding of how to teach in a 1:1 environment. I am in the midst of a huge professional development undertaking to help our faculty model teaching in a 1:1 environment. This has been a dream of mine for some time and I am so excited that it is coming to fruition. I hope to stream out our session and will post more information soon.

Which is why when I saw this on a university listserv I died a little. (All names and subjects have been removed)

As I mentioned in class yesterday, I really do want your feedback about my idea to ban the use of laptops in the face-to-face section of CLASS starting next semester. I know that at first blush that seems a strange idea - banning technology in a course about technology, but let me explain where I am coming from. There are only about 15 or 20 students out of 100 who use their laptops in class - but that small percentage uses them intensely.

So what have we learned about the place of laptops and cellphones and other mobile media over the course of the semester? We have examined a wide variety of helpful tasks that they certainly enable. But do any of those tasks take place in our classroom? The lectures and powerpoints are all posted online so note-taking is brief outlining. I take us to the relevant websites and so the student is freed from that task as well. So far I can't see any imperative positive reason for laptops to on during the class. The only borderline reason would be that students have gotten used to taking notes on their computers. However, my in-class TAs for both this year and last year report that laptops rarely are opened to word/text pages. They are almost exclusively opened to social websites. Those observations are consistent with my "front of the class" observations when there seems to be little relationship between course content and keyboarding behavior - not much typing, a lot of point-and-clicking accompanied by broad smiles and suppressed laughter. I enjoy the class, but I'm thinking that the smiles and laughter aren't always stimulated by the lecture !

The next thing I think about is the damage that mobile technology does to our time in class together. We have looked at a number of reports this semester about multitasking. The current data seem to indicate that we do an awful lot of it, but that invariably we would do each task better if we did them one at a time. It is the pressure of time that forces us to multitask. Those results argue for the perspective that checking email, Facebook, whatever during class leads to poorer retention of the material being covered in class. One might argue that a student should be free to make that decision on their own. Obviously, I have trouble with that argument, but I have even more trouble with the implied argument that student A can make that decision for students B, C and D who are seated around them. It is one thing for a student to choose to distract themselves to the detriment of their own learning, it is a far different thing to subject the students around them to those distractions.

Cell phones are already prohibited - although a few of you seem to have forgotten that.

So what I am asking is not if you would like laptops to be banned from the class. Rather, what I am asking is do you have any non-entertainment, academic reason for them not to be banned? I don't think you can respond to these posts so please send me your feedback at

I instantly thought of the video going around about a professor that destroyed a laptop in class to prove a point.

I started to write my response immediately, but had to hold it in the draft queue. I have learned to keep emotional e-mails around for awhile before I send them, especially when it is someone I do not know. Luckily, the responses that came back were well constructed counter arguments that included discussions surrounding small group work, back channeling, change of lecture style, etc. including:

An emerging trend in my own learning approach is to use technology to supplement a presentation.. If I am listening to a speaker who cites a resource or topic that adds value to what s/he is saying, I often pull up resources from the web that enrich his/her presentation.. It is a richer context.. and actually improves my retention of the teachers/presenters thoughts.
and my favorite:

Sometimes, the reason students are doing things other than what is required for the class they are in is simply because they are bored. If I have the choice of listening to a presentation which essentially regurgitates and minimally expands upon slides I've already downloaded and viewed and a chapter I've already read, versus getting some productive work done via clearing out some emails, working on another project, or so on, I'll choose to do the ladder items.

The discussion seemed to degenerate from there into an all or nothing scenario and eventually grew into.....

Obviously there is middle ground to be explored. But when a laptop brings the multi-million dollar entertainment industry into the classroom no professor can compete, nor should they have to - that is not our job.

I find this interesting since if a professor is a primarily a lecturer and they are on stage talking for an entire class period with minimal interaction with their audience, ahem I mean students, then that sounds a lot like a performer or "entertainer" to me.

What gives me hope is that there is discussion about middle ground, and that is exactly what we need to be talking about. Banning laptops are not the answer, neither is ignoring the issues that arise from laptop use. Is the a bigger classroom management issue, of course it is. Does this merit a discussion with the class - YES!! Should pedagogy change in a laptop classroom - ABSOLUTELY!!! What we can't do is teach the same way we have in the past and expect nothing to ever change.

And to be honest - lets stop blaming the technology for "taking me off task," I can be just as bored without a laptop as I can with one.

I had several concerns about posting this in such a public forum, my intent is not to disrespect or misrepresent any faculty issues. I would never have written this if this had been an individual e-mail, but due to the fact that this was sent to a listserv, the writers themselves have placed this in a public domain.


Barry Dahl said...

I'm with you Beth. First of all, I'm guessing that the professor video is real and not a parody. If so, I find it disgusting, even child-like.

The fact that there are still so many faculty/teachers who refuse to learn anything new is also appalling. Sure, it requires some professional development for faculty to learn how to use new technologies effectively in the classroom. It requires effort, financial support, and many other things to pull this off. But it's worth it.

It is no longer acceptable to use the excuse "it's not my job." When you primarily hang around with people who see the learning impact that is possible from effective uses of technology in the classroom, you start to believe that there is a tidal wave of educators moving in that direction. Unfortunately, that is not the case as there is still a huge majority who take the stance of the person who wrote the missive on the listserv or the professor who kills the laptop. We continue to prepare students to live in a world that no longer exists. Sad, very sad.

Emory said...

Good post Bethany. And I agree with you.
Is much of the resistance also rooted in blaming technology for changing the classroom environment or learning environments?

Jaycous said...

Thanks for writing this and I think you raise an interesting point.

If there are only 20% of students using a laptop and really, it's just a note-taking deal it makes complete sense that they would stray to more exciting things.

It sounds like you provide everything and more a student needs to follow the class so you are probably quite right here. In this instance, they don't need the computers because the outline and notes provided are sufficient in getting across the information. It's more of a one way presentation format.

Why I think this is dangerous ground is that the value of laptops or any future devices is the ability for collaborative learning. A new two-way communication and approach that students research and provide the substance of the class.

I'm not an educator so I am not sure entirely how that all works but I understand there is a movement underfoot to have classes collaborate in their research and post what they discover.

Thanks for the opportunity to comment.

Bethany Smith said...

@Barry I agree, it seems to be such a battle to get faculty to understand that the way they teach need to evolve. I think what scares me the most is that this class is a technology class.

@Emory most of the complaints I get are about seeing technology as a distraction, and therefore changing the classroom environment - they have yet to see that what it is really doing is changing the learning environment

@Jaycous I think part of my issue is that class should not just be a note-taking deal. If all a professor is doing is lecturing based on the PP I have already seen - why go to class. I completely agree that classes should be not only more collaborative, but more project based.

Thanks everyone for commenting!

Paul C said...

Were there any teachers who banned notebooks from their classroom as the slate was becoming obsolete, because of the non-academic doodling that was taking place?

It took courage to write this one, Bethany, but I'm glad that you did.

Jonathan said...

Amen! Two points: Laptops are replacing comic books and airplanes in the classroom. Students need to learn to adjust to the temptation, it will be with them their entire lives.

Second point. Because my class is bored does not mean laptops are bad, it simply means I need to adjust how I teach.

Bethany Smith said...

Thanks Paul & Jonathan. I really do think we need to change the way we think about the classroom in this century (and I will not say 21st Century Skills :)