Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Laptops in Class? What Shall We Do?

I recently had a conversation with a friend and colleague about how many students come into class with a laptop. (Or tablet, or smartphone...) He finds it distracting as an instructor, and was asking my opinions about the subject, since he knows I'm a technophile. We later talked more about it, and he shared with me this blog post that raises the question "Do Laptop Computers Inhibit Learning?" It's a thoughtfully-written piece, and I'd encourage you to read it for yourself. In the post, the author shares a link to a journal article about a study some Canadian researchers conducted regarding students' struggles with remaining attentive when they had technology at hand.

Image by luc legay [CC BY-SA 2.0]

I thought this was a very interesting article. It squares with what I know about learning theory (i.e., human beings can't multitask—we can only focus our attention on one thing at a time…or we end up in a state some researchers have called continuous partial attention…etc.) So I think the argument they construct is credible. Perhaps laptops are distracting students--especially in large class sections and the lecture-based teaching modality present in some college courses.

This gets interesting for me as I reflect on my own teaching practice. I do encourage my Introduction to Education students to bring a laptop/tablet/smartphone to class, and we use the devices regularly, but I also put this statement (which I borrowed from a colleague and modified a bit) in the course policies section of my syllabus:
Electronic Devices: While we will regularly use technology in this course to enhance our learning, please be discerning about appropriate in-class technology etiquette. If you are expecting a call/text that you need to take during class, please notify me before class. If you are using electronic devices inappropriately during class (Facebook, Pinterest, texting, etc.), expect that I will ask you to stop. Inappropriate use of technology during a test or exam will result in a zero for your work and the college policies outlined in the student handbook will be activated. 
While I definitely still have room to grow in this, I've gotten better at calling students out when they are technologically off task—it's usually pretty obvious when they are on Facebook or Pinterest instead of actively tracking what's happening in class. And I try to move around the room as I lecture, so I can see their screens too. Sad that it takes that, but it's often true. I have also asked students to specifically lower the lid of their laptop or put their phone/tablet to sleep if I want them to focus on a particular part of a lecture without the distraction. I think clearly communicating your reasons goes a long way in this regard.

That said, I think this is an issue we will need to talk about globally in higher education at some point in the near future, since so many schools now have (or soon will have) either a 1:1 or BYOD program in place. Students' expectations of how technology will be used in the classroom are different today (or will be different in the near future!) than they were in the past. I'm really not saying this is a good thing or a bad thing, necessarily…but it's a thing…and it's a topic for some frank conversation, in my opinion. 

So, my question remains: should laptops/tablets/smartphones be welcomed into a lecture-based course? If so, how can we wisely encourage our students to use them appropriately? If not, what arguments can we provide for our students for excluding them? What do you think? 


  1. Let's assume that they are not disrupting other students.

    I feel that underlying this train of thought is the question, "to what extent should schools protect students from themselves?"

    I wrote this blog entry ("Coddle students? or leave them alone?") to try and address that question:

    1. Great points you raise here, John. Thanks for your thoughtful treatment of this topic that is widespread in schools today!