Laptops in the Classroom

Here is a short excerpt from a longer article someone posted to the MSU [discuss] list the other day. I found it somewhat interesting because it is actually like the only vaguely on topic message on that list I saw in months.

It’s unusual to walk into a law class, or any classroom in a professional school today, without viewing a sea of open laptop lids blocking students’ faces and hearing the steady hum of fingers striking keyboards.

But a growing — albeit small — number of law professors like Mr. Herzog are pushing back. Students with laptops, they argue, surf the Web instead of engaging in class, and play games, shop online, or e-mail friends, distracting themselves and those who sit near them. The complaints highlight how technologies once eagerly adopted by colleges can later pose problems.

Aside from the Michigan campus, others where law professors have banned laptops include Florida International, Georgetown, and Harvard Universities, and the University of Wisconsin.

Business-school professors, too, complain about laptops’ sabotaging discussions. As a result, some business professors are asking students to close their laptops during conversations.

The backlash appears to be primarily in the law schools, however. Law professors say the Socratic method, the cornerstone of a legal education, in which professors ask students to accept or refute a long series of questions, is under assault by the vast array of amusements available to students on their laptops. The learning method calls for focused interaction between students and professor, as he or she tests their assumptions. Laptops, psychologically and literally, get in the way.

The Chronicle of Higher Education: Information Technology, Volume 54, Issue 40, Page A1

I find that very telling that the Law and Business professors are the ones spearheading this Luddite movement of technology hate. It’s completely unsurprising considering the track record of business school students.

The running joke is that if you have absolutely no idea what to do with your life, no ambition, no drive and no desire to study you sign up for a business program. If, on top of all of the above you can’t do basic arithmetic or operate Excel then you usually go into law. Don’t get offended. I mean, all Math/Science students are considered antisocial nerds by the outside world so I think it is only fair if we retaliate a little bit with stereotypes of our own.

So you can see why I’m not surprised why law professors scoff at laptops in the classroom. They don’t know how to utilize technology in the classroom and their students are probably not using it constructively either. I don’t think I need to mention that using a laptop in most CS classes is invaluable. Especially when you are learning about new programming language or technology it lets you actually try the examples outlined in the lecture in real time.

Some people actually do take notes this way. I tried it couple of times with mixed results in grad school. My biggest problem was that in most classes we did a lot of drawings, diagrams, tables and etc. For me a perfect note taking tool would probably be a tablet with OneNote like software. Unfortunately I never owned one. I could see however how taking electronic notes using a regular laptop in a law related course would be much easier for a fast typist.

I would usually use my laptop to follow along with the PowerPoint presentation. Most professors made their lecture slides available online and this allowed me to flip back and forward through the slides – sometimes out of sync with the lecture – for example to go back few slides to a concept that I did not fully understood as it was explained. I’d also pull up old notes, google unfamiliar terms and try to find interesting arguments and counter-examples to what was being taught in class. So yes, I was browsing the web, but usually constructively.

laptops_in_classroom.png
comic © Doonesbury

As a teacher I have limited use for laptops during the lecture portion of the course, but I sometimes engage my laptop wielding students and make them do some work – for example google some interesting term and read the definition to the class or try out something that I just explained – which can be easy when you are teaching basic computer concepts. The lab portion when they learn how to use MS Office and make HTML websites is a whole other thing.

Naturally given a chance students will browse the web, update their facebook and IM each other. There is no way around it. But I guess this is a matter of personal responsibility. I mean, we are talking about college here. Your students should be responsible adults and they are actually paying large sums of money to be in your class. If they want to waste the time and money by browsing the web that is their problem.

This actually touches on a problem that pains me greatly. I honestly believe that attendance should be optional. I would much rather conduct a class for only the people who actually want to be there, participate and ask questions than force students to sit there and be bored out of their mind, checking their watch every 5 minutes and sneering, and rolling their eyes every time another student asks a question or tries to engage in a discussion. Unfortunately this doesn’t work. I tried this optional attendance thing my first semester as a teacher and I ended up with 6 people showing up one day, and 3 leaving halfway through the lecture. It is silly, irresponsible and kinda stupid. If you don’t want to sit in a given class, why take it at all?

Banishing laptops out of your classroom because some people don’t care to participate in the class, or simply can’t resist the online distractions seems like a step backward. We will have more technology in the classroom in the future – and not less. And pen & paper notes have many huge disadvantages. They can’t be shared and disseminated easily. They can’t be searched, tagged and cataloged. And of course they are easily lost and damaged. If I wanted to look through some of my old class notes from my undergrad classes right now, I would have to dig though boxes papers sitting in a dark corner of my closet or somewhere in the attic. The electronic or scanned notes that I took as a grad student on the other hand are still here sitting on my hard drive. Think about that before banning useful technology out your classroom.

[tags]laptops in the classroom, teaching, school[/tags]

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12 Responses to Laptops in the Classroom

  1. Ian Clifton UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Mac OS says:

    I wonder about these law classes. Is the professor’s role so insignificant that students can ignore him/her all class long and still ace the tests or are students able to successfully multitask? It seems like the first is a problem with the professor (assuming the class is supposed to have a reasonable level of challenge) and the second one shows that the students have developed a useful skill (although it may be at the cost of courtesy). The other option is that students who are on their laptops the whole time are failing, which seems to solve the problem anyway.

    This seems like a much tougher issue at the K-12 level where students aren’t paying money for the courses, though money is becoming rather abstracted, so maybe the college students often don’t realize how much they are paying either (assuming their parents aren’t footing the bill).

    I took notes for one of my classes using my laptop, but I didn’t find it effective. For one, I prefer to just listen and memorize, writing down only the unimportant facts that you just know certain professors will test on. I also prefer to draw during class; it often lets me focus my creative side on one task so that the other side of my brain can focus on the lecture.

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  2. e UNITED STATES Safari Mac OS says:

    Very interesting Luke, I have some comments that I can’t make right now. I wanted to give this this link to Smart Mobs for your perusal and perhaps comments, if you so wish.
    A dopo (later), :)

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  3. vacri AUSTRALIA Mozilla Firefox Debian GNU/Linux says:

    Call me a luddite then. I was surprised the first time I gave a lecture-esque talk – it’s obscenely obvious to the lecturer who is paying attention, who is talking, ignoring you, etc, etc unless the theatre is humungous. All the time I thought I or friends couldn’t be seen I couldn’t be more wrong. And since this disregard is just as off-putting as the watch-lookers, it makes a lecturer’s job that little bit harder. There’s also professional pride here – you want to ensure that your students do well, and if that means banning certain equipment, meh.

    I remember one lecturer of mine who had an 8:30 monday morning lecture. In the first lecture e said the door gets locked at 8:35, be there ahead of time. Funnily enough, people magically started making it on time.

    Unless you have a terrible lecturer (or course) an immense load of information gets passed on in a lecture – I thank whatever is holy that I never had to write one :)

    Add in the point that yes, tertiary students are meant to be all growed up now… but they’re not. A great many were 17-18 and in high school last year, now they’re 18-19 and what’s changed? Well, they can vote now, and over here they can drink as well. But they’re still very similar in terms of personal responsibility.

    I don’t have a problem with an individual lecturer banning laptops because they can tell if most people are using them for notes or using them for entertainment. I do have a problem with a department or any other level banning them. Failing that, put each lecture room in a faraday cage and have the lecturer able to route the room’s network at will :)

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  4. vacri AUSTRALIA Mozilla Firefox Debian GNU/Linux says:

    damn, faraday cage won’t stop people in the same room.

    Hrm…

    either wrap every seat in a faraday cage, or flood the 802.11b/g/n and a bands… yeah, we’ll get those guys! If they have a radio outside those bands… give ‘em extra marks for being sneaky :)

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  5. Semidigerati UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Linux says:

    As an undergrad, I use my laptop for lecture classes. I don’t bring it to every class, mostly because it just doesn’t make any sense to. For example, for Math classes, I couldn’t stand to be constricted to line-by-line notes when I could be scribbling equations all over scrap paper. Also, I certainly didn’t bring it to discussion or small classes. As weird as it sounds, I didn’t take it to my Java course mostly because the professor asked a lot of questions. On top of it, he posted the notes online after lecture.

    However, for those gigantic (200-300 students) and lengthy lecture classes like Psychology, Sociology, and History (I’m assuming… my first History class will be next semester), a laptop is invaluable, mostly because I can keep up with the prof, dictating everything that is said. You know how people often say that you shouldn’t note everything the professor says? Yeah, in those cases, they’re wrong.

    My laptop was one of, if not the, greatest tool at my disposal in my first year of college. Instead of printing off PowerPoints I could just store them on the hard drive. Lecture notes? Bam. Far easier than carrying a huge notebook with disorganized papers floating all over the place.

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  6. Teague UNITED STATES Internet Explorer Windows says:

    Luke, I think your reaction is a knee-jerk. I also think you and most of your readers are exceptions to the general rule that kids today have no respect for themselves or others. Now get off my lawn!

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  7. Ben UNITED STATES Opera Linux says:

    I got my undergrad in 1996. At that time, in that school, you just didn’t see laptops in the classroom. Attendance was optional though. I went back for my masters last year, and every other student has a laptop. Ninety percent of them use the laptop for IMing during class. They almost never do anything class related on it. As a student it doesn’t bug me. I know that most those students are looking at Bs or Cs, but I figured that’s their problem. It does bother me when I get paired up with one of those goofballs. If they IM through class, they are certainly not doing their reading, but that just means a little extra work for me. I can see where it would bug a professor who is going to be expected to pass a certain percentage of students, even if those students didn’t earn it. I have my Bachelors in CS and I’m working on my Masters in CS as well.

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  8. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    [quote comment="9386"]I took notes for one of my classes using my laptop, but I didn’t find it effective. For one, I prefer to just listen and memorize, writing down only the unimportant facts that you just know certain professors will test on. I also prefer to draw during class; it often lets me focus my creative side on one task so that the other side of my brain can focus on the lecture.[/quote]

    Actually, same here – but I figured I’m just backwards and maladjusted relic of the past era and that the younger generations who were born holding laptops and iPhones will actually have no problems like this.

    [quote comment="9389"]Very interesting Luke, I have some comments that I can’t make right now. I wanted to give this this link to Smart Mobs for your perusal and perhaps comments, if you so wish.[/quote]

    Interesting. The article you linked to makes a compelling heartfelt argument. Still, I view these things with a grain of salt because students can easily find all kinds of distractions when they want to even without laptop. When I was an undergrad laptops were rarely seen in classrooms. Instead we played Tetris on our Texas Instruments graphing calculators. I once sat next to a guy who played “snake” game on his cell phone for the whole class. I used to doodle when I was bored and write multi panel comics featuring my friends and then pass them around. Oh and we played pen and paper games such as “dots”. I spent most of my undergrad “Cultures of the Middle East” class playing nethack on my pda.

    I came to my Calc 3 class only to do homework from the previous week and discuss it with the other students during the lecture because our professor was absolutely useless.

    When I was in high school, Magic the Gathering games were a common sight in a classroom.

    The truth is that some students just won’t pay attention no matter what you do. I’ve been there, and done that – and I surely didn’t need a laptop to distract myself to the point I was not paying attention to the lecture at all. But when I did want to pay attention, laptops could be very helpful.

    [quote comment="9401"]flood the 802.11b/g/n and a bands… yeah, we’ll get those guys![/quote]

    Actually, that won’t work now that cellular networks are offering wifi. I know few people who actually got those little USB cards from like Verizon so that they don’t have to rely on hotspots and open wifi.

    [quote comment="9403"]My laptop was one of, if not the, greatest tool at my disposal in my first year of college. Instead of printing off PowerPoints I could just store them on the hard drive. Lecture notes? Bam. Far easier than carrying a huge notebook with disorganized papers floating all over the place.[/quote]

    That’s the sort of thing that I’m talking about. Laptops can be a distraction, but also can be extremely useful when used constructively.

    [quote comment="9404"]Luke, I think your reaction is a knee-jerk. I also think you and most of your readers are exceptions to the general rule that kids today have no respect for themselves or others. Now get off my lawn![/quote]

    Heh, all my reactions are knee-jerk reactions. :mrgreen:

    [quote comment="9406"]I went back for my masters last year, and every other student has a laptop. Ninety percent of them use the laptop for IMing during class. They almost never do anything class related on it.[/quote]

    I sort of had the opposite experience. In many of my classes we would actually use laptops to look up class related stuff, or try the discussed concepts. For example the professor could show us a piece of code and say it is more effective, faster, less error prone or something – and we could test it in real time.

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  9. ZeWrestler UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Linux says:

    I seem to remember programming languages class where we took advantage of the talk command on pegasus.

    Also,I remember the labs at MSU had a disable feature that would turn the monitors off of all the students when a prof was lecturing.

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  10. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    [quote comment="9410"]I seem to remember programming languages class where we took advantage of the talk command on pegasus.[/quote]

    That we did. :) Of course we could have used IM just as well, but it wouldn’t be as much fun I guess. :P

    But we also got to mess around with Lisp and all the other funky programming languages in that class which was I thought a beneficial use of laptops.

    [quote comment="9410"]Also,I remember the labs at MSU had a disable feature that would turn the monitors off of all the students when a prof was lecturing.[/quote]

    They took that out when they renovated the lab. :( Now there is no way to shut off the screens when I for example need to give an exam in that class.

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  11. BigGamer PHILIPPINES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    I personally find it cool, but it also depends on the user. If you are one to get easily distracted, I don’t think this is for you. But where is the fun in you not using laptop when everybody else does? Well, what is important is learning and not how techy you are.

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  12. jambarama UNITED STATES Epiphany Linux Terminalist says:

    They were talking about cutting off wifi access in classroooms – not too many people have those cell cards yet. Which was fine by me, I take all my notes in a customized tiddlywiki – it makes them searchable, portable, cross-platform, and offline. Great stuff.

    Although I certainly couldn’t take notes without my laptop, losing the net during classes seems like it’d help everyone focus. I’d miss the ability to look up words online, and occasionally get a wikipedia entry on stuff like perpetuities, or find the relevant USC section, but it might benefit me. Actually, I’m happy to get a leg up on all those who browse facebook in class all day.

    On the other hand, some professors seem to think that it’s ok to take much of class time conveying the same information you’d have gotten if you did your reading conscientiously. That’s not education–that’s a waste of time. A lecture should be compelling enough to hold one’s attention, even if the actual information in it would be more efficiently conveyed in text form; that way, there’s at least a chance of a boost in retention from the Q&A format. If students can do well without paying attention in class, that doesn’t say much for the lecture.

    On the other hand, I don’t think there’s any prof that can really compete with the Internet for entertainment value, so when we had internet I tended to surf even during the good classes. But now that it’s gone, some classes are really bad. In undergrad I don’t think I EVER skipped a class. Even if classes were boring, ususally there was info or something that helped. But I go to classes here occassionally and I am STUPIDER after having gone to them. The profs are all brilliant, but sometimes they just want to play hide the ball and “teach people to think like lawyers” or whatever. At the beginning it was kind of fun and exciting, but now I find it really irritating. In general, I would say about half my law classes simply are not worth attending.

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