09 June 2014

Ban Disconnection, Not Laptops

It's a great party, so no one complains when the NewYorker is late to it, but hasn't the issue of laptops in the classroom been fairly well canvassed by now?

I ban laptops, mostly.  In my small (<40 students) discussion-based classes, students build skills in interpretation and analysis.  For the most part, the information that gets delivered can be recorded on post-it notes attached to the relevant pages of the book we're discussing--and that's the method I recommend.  I point out that our classroom as is akin to a nature preserve or national park: one of the few remaining spaces where face-to-face conversation among people who are otherwise strangers is a method of attaining knowledge.

[So far, I haven't run into trouble adapting this policy to students who have documented learning needs requiring the use of a computer in class.  I ask them to try a couple of days laptop-free, during which students realize that I mean it when I tell them they won't need to take a lot of notes.]

The laptops come out, though, with my blessing, when small groups are collaborating on a piece of writing, or when they've been asked to track down an allusion or find information relevant to a discussion. There are things that laptops do well in the heat of class activity and it makes sense to use them then.

Small and interactive classes where the laptop policy self-evidently meshes with the demands of the learning taking place, are very different from the darkened lecture hall, lit by hundreds of flickering laptops where students, under the guise of taking notes, do everything else: shop, check Facebook, catch up on e-mail, read celebrity gossip, stay abreast of news.   Much is being made of  a new study showing that students who take notes in longhand learn more than students who take notes on computer.  But for the students dividing their attention between the big Powerpoint screen at the front of the room and the little screens in front of them, the choice is not between taking notes and taking notes better.  The choice is between experiencing the lecture and experiencing multiple demands on their attention.  The distractions offered by a laptop are more intrusive than the various socially acceptable analog ways of employing one's hands in the company of others.  One can doodle and listen, knit and listen, repair fishing nets and listen, roll bandages and listen.  Reading a novel or newspaper and listening?  Writing a letter and listening?  That doesn't work so well.  But that's often what students are trying to do when they have their laptops open during class.

In many cases, these students demonstrate that they don't need to listen, and they may have a point.  If the information available in a textbook has been digested into Powerpoint slides that students can review at will, then only the most self-aware of auditory learners will recognize the value of hearing it as well, and only the most well-disciplined students will see the time they spend in the lecture hour as time saved later studying for an exam.

The problem isn't the technology--it's the way we elicit students' attention.  Any number of things, from K - 12 test-based teaching, to the video-game logic of many instructional resources, to the multimedia abundance that surrounds our students, encourage their passivity.  Banning laptops alone is not enough to break through their assumption that learning involves arriving at predetermined right answers--the more quickly the better.

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