The Laptop in the Classroom

Our Lady of Scathing Online Schoolmarmery forgive me, but I don’t think I will be banning laptops in my classrooms in the near-future.

The case against classroom laptops is that they encourage students to divert their attention from class, either to other tasks like email or to total goof-off activities like watching videos or porn. This is viewed as a problem not just for the distracted student but for any students able to see the offending laptop use.

For the most part, I’ve benefited from laptop users in discussions and lectures. Students who have superb search skills have introduced useful material or questions into discussion. In a few cases, I’ve had students find pertinent archival video in response to the drift of the conversation which I’ve then put up on the classroom projector.

I am sure there are students in my classes who have multitasked during a lecture or discussion. I’ll be honest with you. I’ve done the same on my laptop when I’ve been in the audience during conferences or lectures, usually email. I’ve done that in response to being bored, but I’ve also done it as a kind of thoughtful doodling while feeling quite engaged and interested in what the speaker is saying and taking copious notes. So it doesn’t worry or offend me that a student might be doing the same. If it’s because they’re bored, that’s an issue with my presentation. (Though I’m not going to take responsibility for getting universal engagement: you can’t get blood from a stone, and some students are stones.) If the audience is still being thoughtful, taking good notes, and retaining information while multitasking, why should I care?

If a student using a laptop is not paying attention at all, that’s a problem. I think the people who blame the technology may be forgetting that this is an old part of the art of being a student. Equipped with nothing but pen and paper, students have doodled, snuck in magazines, drowsed, written letters, daydreamed behind sunglasses and spent time surveilling other students in preference to watching the professor. The most outrageous example of obvious disengagement that I’ve ever seen in my own classes came last year in a room with about a quarter of the students using laptops. It was a student who brought crossword puzzles to class discussion and dutifully completed them with a bored look on her face.

I didn’t make a fuss about that behavior, so I’m unlikely to make a fuss about laptops, either. I’m not a student’s mommy and I’m not a student’s nanny. If they want to waste four expensive years, I’m not going to shake a reproving finger at them or humiliate them impersonally in the style of The Paper Chase‘s Professor Kingfield. (I completely approve of those professors who want to do that, mind you. It’s just not my style.)

About the only thing that strikes me as distinctive about laptops is that a student viewing movies or images would be a unique annoyance to other students around them. If I thought that was happening a good deal, I’d be more inclined to consider a ban, or to take action against the offending student. (Swarthmore students and alums reading this post: am I right in thinking this is fairly uncommon behavior? Or have you been in my classes or other classes here fuming in annoyance over some guy watching YouTube and wishing the professor would do something about it?)

I know that my institution’s classrooms are not at all typical of the wider world of academia. Distracting laptops in lectures delivered to three or four hundred students in large universities or a night course at a community college where some students are trying to get professional retraining after working a full day are a different matter than laptops in a twenty-person discussion course at an elite college. I suspect in some institutions that the misuse of laptops is more common on a per capita basis.

At least some of the time, however, I worry that anti-laptop sentiment at other institutions is a red herring meant to distract from the real culprit: a pedagogy built around the droning delivery of static lectures (or PowerPoint slides) to huge audiences of understandably disengaged students. You could ban every conceivable distraction and order students strapped into their seats but that alone is not going to compel engagement or learning if the professor doesn’t take on the burden of keeping students engaged. The devil laptop is sometimes like the demon rum: an alibi for sins commenced long before the hated object made its appearance.

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35 Responses to The Laptop in the Classroom

  1. samth says:

    As someone who has banned laptops in my class, I think about this somewhat differently. When I have a laptop at hand, I find it very difficult to avoid using it in a way that prevents me from paying attention to the presentation at hand. Sometimes that’s what I want, when I’m at a talk that I don’t care about, but often it just prevents me from listening to something that I actually want to listen to. I think that this is likely the case for students as well – when they have a laptop, the temptation to check email (or facebook, or the NYT, etc) is too hard to resist, even when you come in to the process with the best of intentions.

  2. jfruh says:

    I left school just before laptops became ubiquitous, but boy howdy would I want one in class if I could. Since I’ve learned to touch-type (still the single most useful skill I picked up in high school), I’ve been able to type faster than I can write something out longhand, and so just the note-taking capabilities would be a godsend.

  3. Western Dave says:

    My 9th graders have 1 to 1 laptop and they are probably more attentive now than before. Tim, you are dead on that lecturers blaming laptops for kids not paying attention are deceiving themselves about how many students were doing the crossword puzzle prior to laptops. Samth, if you were an uncontrollable doodler would you ban pens and pencils from your classroom? I have several students who were doodlers who are more focused on laptops. Why are you penalizing them for your sins? It only takes one call out of inappropriate computer use in the first week of class to keep everybody else on task for the rest of the term.

  4. benjamin says:

    During my time at Swat the use of laptops in the classroom by students was still kind of a novelty. I still have my fully-scribed paper notebooks sitting in a closet somewhere in my house…I am certain they will be useful again one day.

    Coincidentally, both you and another blogger I follow, Beauty and Depravity (eugenecho.wordpress.com), posted today about the use and misuse of mobile technology in settings not accustomed to it. He, a pastor at a relatively new congregation in Seattle, commented on a recent Time article about pastors incorporating twittering during their worship services.

    Is this what Web 2.0 looks like when it’s not on a computer screen?

  5. I too have found more plus than minus in students’ laptop use – the ability to have a student quickly find a fact during a discussion is great. Even better, once a student looked up something on Wikipedia that I knew to be incorrect, so I had him correct it on the spot! The only times I discourage laptop use are during exams/quizzes (of course) and screenings (because of the light distraction).

    I’m thinking about the inverse problem – how can we imagine using in-class tools that might require laptops, even when a proportion of our students lack them? For instance, I like the idea of using Twitter as a backchannel of commentary and questions during class. But enough of my students don’t have laptops/smartphones that I couldn’t require this. I try not to create situations that highlight class disparities that can be really tough at elite SLACs. Any tips?

  6. David Chudzicki says:

    Didn’t notice anything particularly distracting (video-watching, etc.) in your class, or any others at Swarthmore. In graduate school (Phd, math) some of my classmates consistently watched soccer in the back of one class. It’s still not me, but I do find this a bit more understandable than completely disengaging at Swarthmore (where we were pretty much completely free to pick classes that interested us!).

  7. north says:

    In high school, I wrote out song lyrics, doodled, wrote long letters to no one in particular, occasionally wrote extremely bad poetry, or slept in class – pretty much anything other than really pay attention. Several of my teachers hated me for it, and I basically sympathize (especially after having been a teacher). But it is also true that I did those things because I was bored out of my skull the whole time and that when I got to Swarthmore I basically stopped doing those things because I wanted to be able to participate articulately in class (and also because I grew up and stopped being an asshole). I did occasionally pass notes and doodle, but the notes were almost always about class discussion. The doodling is something that keeps my hands busy and my brain slightly engaged when I’m not actually formulating a response to class discussion, because otherwise I tend to either talk too often or otherwise be a little rude. So I’m pretty much living proof that a) laptops aren’t the only way you can distract yourself and b) distraction isn’t always bad. And the benefits are pretty real.

    I still feel about laptops (for myself) more or less the way samth does. If I have the whole world of the internet, plus gchat and facebook and email, it’s really hard for me to focus on a lecture or even on a class discussion that’s not utterly fascinating to me. And I don’t like taking notes on a computer, but I think that’s a technological issue – if I had a better note-taking program that let me do faster outlining/formatting, or a touch-screen tablet that let me draw quick graphics or graphs into a document, I think I’d like it much better and it might be worth bringing the computer to classes and just setting up Freedom or something to keep the internet at bay for a while.

    On Jason’s question: I think one easy way is to have school laptops available for borrowing during classes that need them. That’s what the high school where I taught did, and I suspect you’d have less terrible security and breakage worries with college students than high schoolers; you could also announce that a particular class day will involve laptops in advance, and tell students they can bring their own or use a borrowed one, as they prefer. Some students who have laptops won’t want to haul them around all day. If they need to get information off the laptop, most colleges have a network with some amount of storage, and most students who don’t have laptops will have flash drives. Does Swarthmore have a laptop cart? If it doesn’t, do you know why?

  8. dmerkow says:

    I’m pretty much okay with the laptops though I’ve had a couple classes start to get out of hand with bad apples watching movies et al. I think this will solve itself to some degree as more tablet style devices are used (go textbook sized Kindle). I don’t mind sleepers or other forms of distractedness, but at least I can see what they are up to, laptops hide that. It is hard to tell the good students from the good actors. It isn’t the technology, it is rooms crammed with desks so I can’t circulate around the room to keep folks honest and the mechanical aspect of the laptop design that puts up a barrier between the student and professor. Now faculty lecturing from a laptop is seriously painful.

  9. Carl says:

    Hm. I do sudokus and crossword puzzles during faculty meetings – is that bad? I find they distract just enough of my attention that I don’t feel the need to leap into every discussion (as I did in school, when I wasn’t so bored I didn’t bother to show up), which means that when I do say something it has a better chance of being well-considered on my side and valued on the colleague side.

    As a teacher I agree with Tim that it’s my responsibility to make my class worth paying attention to (or at least necessary to pay attention to, since it’s not clear why an unmotivated student would pay attention if they can pass without).

    But on the specific question of laptops and other technology in the classroom I’m taking my cues these days from Ira Socol, who writes about learning disabilities and differences at SpeEdChange. He wonders why people who happen to have been successful learning one particular way (those of us who end up as teachers) think that’s the only good way to learn, noting how narrowly exclusionary that attitude ends up being. In the new technologies he sees tools that can equalize access to diverse learners and enrich the information environment of the classroom for all students. A good introduction to his thinking is here.

    In some sense banning laptops from classrooms is a bit like banning ballpoint pens and notebooks would have been a few decades ago. (The kids use them to doodle in.) Or quills and inkwells. (The boys dip the girls’ pigtails.) Buddha received his enlightenment under the bodhi tree, so does this mean we should dispense with classrooms and formal classes altogether? Maybe what we need to do is figure out how to normalize these new tools.

  10. Carl says:

    OOPS! Wrong link for Ira Socal. Ignore my ramblings and find Ira’s thoughts here.

  11. irasocol says:

    I pretty much insist that every student come to classes I teach with some effective communication device, be it laptop or mobile, and have it available to use. I for one, despite knowing Dr. Soltan’s insistence that everyone in academia be exactly like herself in grammar, in reading preferences, in learning style, can not imagine any sensible instructor making this statement: “However, one student admitted using his pocket device to look of the definition of a word I was using.” Wow. I guess she bans dictionaries, perhaps even the books for literature students are using themselves. But there you go, some of us would rather control our students than allow them to learn.

    I appreciate Carl (above) linking to my Technology and Equity post. I’ll suggest two others. One, regards exactly what a professor like Dr. Soltan does to some of her students. Of course it borders on illegal (and may be in some cases), but it is always immoral. http://speedchange.blogspot.com/2008/04/humiliation-and-modern-professor.html Humiliating students may be fun for some, but it drives some of our best minds away from education.

    The other regards real ways to engage technology in the classroom. Last semester I had a 60 student class. Were people using Facebook, et al? Of course. But I think, though much less experienced than Dr. Soltan, that I have better instincts. At every moment students were being asked by me to look things up, to share them, to try something out, see if something worked. We collaborated via Google Docs and VoiceThread. We even ran our own self-contained Twitter-like feed throughout the class sessions. http://speedchange.blogspot.com/2008/11/bringing-back-channel-forward.html

    The result was a far more engaged group of undergrads, and a lot more learning in every direction.

    Unlike Dr. Soltan, I believe that we must expand educational opportunity. That we must not be so socially reproductive that we limit our potential student successes to only those who are exact cultural and social replicas of ourselves. In order to do that, we, as enlightened educators have throughout history, reach out through the communication technologies our culture affords us.

    Ira Socol

  12. Timothy Burke says:

    I agree, by the way, that trying to lecture from a laptop is usually a very bad idea. It’s extremely hard to do a smooth, compelling and engaged presentation when the technology is pacing what you do: even at its best, it tends to make stuff more like a recital. A good lecture, it seems to me, has an element of improvisation and dynamic responsiveness to the mood and interest level of the class–the laptop can be a shield that keeps you out of the game.

  13. Timothy Burke says:

    Ira: You’ve misread an important part of Margaret Soltan’s entry. That’s not her opinion, it’s an interview by Tim Challies of another professor, Douglas Groothuis, who has written about the relationship between spirituality and technology. So as far as the comment about the pocket device, your beef is with that person, not Soltan.

    Soltan advocates a kind of toughness on students (and she’s certainly a consistent critic of laptops in classrooms) but I’ve never seen her express a taste for humiliating or calling out students, quite the contrary. (You can even look her up on Rate My Professors!) But I’m really in favor of a kind of pedagogical pluralism: different things work for different people, and there is a value to some kinds of tough-minded or confrontational pedagogy if that’s where a professor’s strengths and instincts lie.

  14. irasocol says:

    Timothy,

    I apologize for misreading that. But what I have seen from Dr. Soltan, and I only know her from her blogging, is a disregard for other types of learners – an active disregard. That’s different from me saying that I wouldn’t sign up for one of her courses because of my preferences – which is fine – that’s the value of choices within any university. What disturbs me is that when presented with the evidence that some of her students might really benefit from the technology she rejects, she says she will “respond to special circumstances,” meaning, she will force students into perhaps undesired disclosure of what would otherwise be private facts of their life.

    Her willingness to force that disclosure of disability or significant learning difference lies at the heart of my conflict with her. I respect her writing, I simply do not respect the teaching of those willing to engage in what I consider discriminatory practices.

    Ira Socol

  15. irasocol says:

    That said, when I teach, my laptop is a demonstration tool, only when I want information up that I won’t be saying, do I use PowerPoint slides in traditional ways, and then, the students all have access to those online concurrently. I sort of believe in the Catholic Cathedral concept of teaching: there are a lot of things going on, engaging all the senses, trying to give learning all sorts of opportunities to occur.

    Of course that is not for every student either.

  16. Carl says:

    My bad – I probably started the misreading of UD’s post by referring to it as her rant, but I took the post of another’s thoughts without commentary except for a ratifying title to be an endorsing appropriation. And I agree with Ira about la Soltan’s general m.o., which is why despite the occasional merits of the news and commentary there I usually find other ways to spend my time.

    I agree with Ira that requiring students who have figured out how to use unconventional tools or methods to enhance their learning to account for themselves or seek special accommodation is needlessly humiliating. When it’s established that laptops and mobiles can be valuable for all students and essential for some, banning them stops being a matter of being tough on students and starts being a matter of deliberate pedagogical exclusion. It then becomes important to consider whether that exclusion is in some way legitimate, or merely prejudicial.

    I have to admit that I’ve long since come to some conclusions about what I’m good for as a teacher. I’m really good at running discussions, and I’m leery of anything that moves the focus and energy of the classroom away from what I know a good discussion can accomplish. It might be that just won’t work for some students, and I don’t think it needs to. Teachers have different strengths. But I’m also willing in each case to hold judgment on how I see students engaging with a class, to appreciate a variety of contributions, and if there seems to be a disconnect to ask questions rather than jumping to conclusions. I don’t see space for that in a flat laptop ban or the kind of smug groupthink that often accompanies these discussions.

  17. Western Dave says:

    Prof. Socol,
    Your approach to learning differences strikes me as odd. Why shroud in privacy what should be an open honest discussion by all? No two people learn quite the same way and the range of learning styles is endlessly various. In my classroom, (independent school), our conversation around how my students learn and how they use their laptops to focus on strengths and compensate for weaknesses is pretty much a weekly affair. When the 9th graders got their laptops in our 1:1 roll out it was a daily affair. Bring learning differences into the daylight and being open and honest is the right approach. Even when I taught college, I started every year with my own journey in the land of educational difference (from honors class to resource room in one diagnosis!) and encouraged students to share their own stories and strategies about how they learn.

  18. alicia_anderson says:

    As a hiring manager in the corporate (publishing) world, I see folks in the workplace doing all sorts of things on their laptops, blackberries, etc while in face-to-face and conference call meetings. Sure, some use them to keep copious notes, others to look up the competitors website while we discuss the newest campagin, but you know there are others that may get distracted by any number of respectable sites.

    Mobile devices aren’t going to be banned in the workplace, nor should they be. So, I’m writing to ask that for those of you who do allow (encourage?) use of laptops and the like in the classroom to find opportunies to help students understand the best ways to use them in meaningful ways. Not only are there lessons on manners to be learned, but also on the ways to manage information, which is a valuable lesson for every connected person.

    If this learning happens in school, then I won’t have to spend time exploring the uses in a brown bag session, or writing about it in workplace expectation documentation.

    This is my first time commenting on a blog and I appreciate the opportunity.

    -Alicia Anderson

  19. alicia_anderson says:

    Before I get lynched, I’m not suggesting that you should let laptops in the classroom just to make MY life easier :) I guess I was trying to say similar things to Western Dave. There are good life lessons to be learned when thinking about the use of mobile devices.

  20. irasocol says:

    Dave,

    We spend a great deal of time discussing individual learning styles and preferences. That’s all great. And I wish most of the future teachers I work with had teachers like you in primary and secondary schools, because these discussions are totally new to them.

    What I don’t want is anyone forced into unwanted disclosure in this society, especially in the US, where disclosure of disability can limit job opportunities and even access to health care. So, it is not important to me whether you take notes on a laptop because you have dexterity issues or problems forming letters, or issues with attention. I don’t need to know if you have digital books because you are dyslexic or have MS and can’t carry physical books, or even if you just prefer those.

    We can talk preferences and diversity, absolutely. But I do not insist that students proclaim their disabilities, their sexual preferences, their gender, their racial make up, or even their birth socio-economic status. That information is welcomed and greeted without judgment when offered, but I do not teach – or live – in a world so perfect that I am sure no harm will come from these revelations.

    Listen. I’m a doc student in a “Top Ten” School of Education’s Special Ed program (not a Prof -sorry), and there are still situations where I would rather appear insolent than disabled. So if asked why there is an earbud stretching from my laptop to my ear I might say, “I’m listening to music instead of you,” rather than, “the computer is reading to me.” Because I know that with certain university faculty, the former is sadly preferable to the latter.

    Ira Socol

  21. Carl says:

    Alicia, that’s a great point. I’d like to pass it to the parents – any of those here…? OK, I’ll see what I can do.

    I was thinking about this last semester. Our old classroom building just now got wired up for wireless. Two young, entitled students showed up for seminar with their laptops and promptly used them to check email, facebook and so on while we were getting into the discussion. No intention to be rude, just not clear on an etiquette that has not, after all, been fully clarified for new technologies. I said, the wireless is great, isn’t it? Let’s be sure to use it for class-related stuff. And that was that.

  22. Ira Socol says:

    As I’m listening to Will Richardson – via UStream – discuss what goes wrong when you do not actively use and teach technology in the classroom (duh, it gets used badly), I’ve multi-tasked and blogged on this issue at http://speedchange.blogspot.com/2009/05/margaret-soltan-and-jim-crow.html

  23. Matt Lungerhausen says:

    “I know that my institution???? classrooms are not at all typical of the wider world of academia. Distracting laptops in lectures delivered to three or four hundred students in large universities or a night course at a community college where some students are trying to get professional retraining after working a full day are a different matter than laptops in a twenty-person discussion course at an elite college. I suspect in some institutions that the misuse of laptops is more common on a per capita basis.”

    I appreciate this caveat Tim. I think its something that needs to be kept in mind in any discussion of pedagogy and technology. Its at least as important as discussing the learning styles of individual students. You also have to take into account the needs of the students as a community.

    My own practice is to ban laptops from my Freshmen level western civ classes (each section has about 30 students). If a student has a compelling need to use a laptop in class, I ask them to talk to me about it. For example, a few students have purchased e-textbooks and I require all students to use the documents reader in class. So they obviously need to use the computer to access the material in class. If the students don’t like the policy or any aspect of my teaching style they can always take the class with another instructor.

    In upper division courses I do not bother to regulate the laptops. I feel that the juniors and seniors know the ropes. If they’d rather sit there playing Internet poker, thats fine with me. Its their money. The benefit comes when we are having a discussion and students can quickly run down a name, date, factoid, or access a relevant primary source document.

    I also agree with your point about lecturing with the laptop. I’ve been trying to develop a power point repertoire, but my timing is totally off. I probably only have 5 or 10% of my lectures on ppt. Its a real art and my hat is off to the people who have mastered it. I really like the rhythm of chalk and talk.

  24. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, I agree, I think that’s a great point, Alicia. Pretty much the same position I take on exposing kids to modern media (including advertisements): I think the worst possible approach is to try and construct a sheltered bubble or monastic haven and then suddenly drop kids (or students) into an environment where different rules apply.

  25. takingitoutside says:

    I’ve got a slightly different take on the matter from Messrs. Socol and Carl. As a grad student with ADHD, it drives me nuts to see people playing video games or watching TV shows right in front of me – and the vast majority of students in my school are doing precisely that (to be clear, this is mostly undergrads in joint undergraduate/graduate classes; in grad student-only sections there is rarely a laptop in sight). When I was an undergrad there was the occasional e-mail checker, but nothing like I’ve seen in grad school. I’ve even seen a few enterprising students write papers for one class while in another. It has been a rather large problem for me, particularly this last semester when I was in all joint classes.

    Mr. Socol says that he does not want to force students into disclosures, but that works two ways – having a lax laptop policy impedes students who only want to learn in class, and it is much harder to ask a teacher to pull back on liberties already granted to the class/keep a closer eye on laptop use than it is to ask for extra assistance (for the record, due to various problems I have been put in both positions; asking for extra time and a quiet space to take exams was difficult but possible, but I have yet to gather the courage to tell a teacher that a substantial portion of their class is watching TV/playing video games/writing papers for other classes and that I, as a result, am not paying attention to a majority of his/her lectures). When you ask for extra help, the extra help is there to help you overcome your own problem, but if you complain about laptops you imply that the professor is failing to control the class on some level. What student would be dumb enough to do that?

    This isn’t to say that laptops cannot serve a purpose in class, just that I haven’t really seen them do so. In some classes people have brought in their own Macs to hook up to the A/V equipment and shown neat presentations, for example. But that’s the only time in my entire college career that I have seen a good use for laptops. In fact, I recently finished a class where one student brought in his laptop and would do all sorts of things – many discussion related – in class, just like some people here are suggesting. However he frequently held up class with questions that only served to help him Google things that had been mentioned in class. The entire class had to stop fruitful discussions and sit there while he figured out things like the name of the actress who played a minor character in an old TV show referenced by one of the homework assignments. It did not add to the conversation, and certainly irritated me and the other students that I know.

  26. Ira Socol says:

    Takingitoutside,

    I just wanted to add thoughts as another “ADHDer.”

    Almost everything other students do in the classroom distracts me, and always has.

    If Tim will indulge, let me quote two paragraphs from my novel:

    “The problem is this. Say that you are in a classroom. In that classroom, hundreds of things are happening every minute. People are talking, people are moving, papers are rustling and pages are turning, the air from the ventilator is making the flag move, chairs are squeaking, there may be fish in an aquarium that are swimming while their air pump bubbles or the classroom hamster running on an exercise wheel in its cage, someone will sneeze or cough or drop their pencil and reach down and pick it up or pick lint off their sweater or pass a note to the person next to them ? there might be things hanging from the ceiling that are slowly turning, there is dust floating in the sunlight coming through the windows, and of course there are fluorescent lights that are actually, this is true, blinking on and off sixty times every second. Plus, there are probably hundreds of words and dozens of pictures on the walls, each intending to grab your attention, there are patterns in the floor and on the ceiling tiles, there is the grain of the wood on your desktop sometimes marked with scratches and writing that other students have put there, there are books all over the place with words on them and the hardware that holds your notebook together. Then, outside the window and in the hall outside the door are millions of other things ? cars and birds and planes and kids at recess and clouds going by, or even more amazing ? rain, or a person walking past the classroom door, or just the way that power lines and phone wires hang between each pole. And finally there is everything about you ? from the feel of each piece of clothing against your skin to whether you are hot or hungry or thirsty to the tag at the back of your shirt that is scratching your neck to listening to the funny little noise of the blood running through your ears or trying to find a pattern in the weave of the fabric of your jeans and what could be more incredible than the shapes on the bottom of your sneakers and how dirt sticks into them.

    “All of these things are going on. One of those things might be the teacher talking or one might be the test you are supposed to be taking. But in each of those cases that is still just one thing and there are, obviously, so many things. And the point is that even if I??m supposed to know which of those things I should be paying the most attention to, even if I??ve been told ??five hundred times for God??s sake,?? it still doesn??t work. It??s still like having a dozen people standing around me all yelling different things at once. Later people told me that because I paid attention to so much stuff it made me a good cop; maybe so, but it does not make you the favorite of any teacher.”

    I guess I bring this up because the issue you describe is a somewhat different one, and yet the same, as with all other “disabilities” we are at an intersection between who you are (or I am) and the environment in which a task must take place. So, undoubtedly you know all the standard answers – sit in the front row, sit in the back corner, and sometimes those work and sometimes not. So, perhaps without specific disclosure, based in “preference only,” classrooms might have sections – multitaskers and singletaskers, for example. Amtrak has quiet cars, club cars, regular cars. Its the same kind, different needs being met within the same system.

    I’m interested because your experience is the opposite of mine. In undergrad classes I have to ask students to bring laptops. In my grad courses the laptop in every hand in essential to the conversation, as we all look things up, share documents, research, books to read, questions. In my grad courses we also, of course, have few readings actually available in print form – students must choose to print documents out if they want paper versions. While undergrads (not in things I teach, but) are still stuck with expensive, instantly antiquated textbooks.

    But a large part of what you describe I would call “instructional failure.” If everyone brought a pen and paper to class and the instructor had nothing for students to do with that, “bad” things would happen. Pens would be twirled, paper airplanes folded, notes passed, pictures drawn. Instructors which do not make constant use of the information technologies in the room – “could you look that up?” “could you share that?” “we’ll use Google Docs to share thoughts” “look it up, see if what I just said is true” – are creating the situation you describe. The students are simply reacting to their environment.

  27. Timothy Burke says:

    This is useful. I’m honestly concerned with the possibility that laptop users are doing things that are visual or otherwise seriously distracting not just for learning-disabled students but for almost anyone in view. The same way, for example, that students carrying on a whispered conversation are distracting for both the professor and the students. The student who stopped the class for trivia is a different kind of problem, the kind of problem that any teacher faces from time to time (the person who speaks a lot but actually interferes with any sense of progression in the discussion). In any event, if I started to feel that I was looking out a room full of people viewing Hulu during class, I’d feel much more predisposed to a laptop ban.

    Classroom architecture could indeed solve some of these questions. If everyone’s around a square or circular table, it’s a bit harder to see more than the laptop next to you, for example, whereas in a large lecture hall, you may have 5-10 laptops in view.

  28. Ira Socol says:

    Interesting, because I always suggest that if you really want to “re-form” education, you begin with the architecture, the calendar, the clock. (Then, of course, the curriculum, which divides, rather than bridges.) The structure of the learning space is a huge challenge for many, instructors and students. At the most basic it inhibits comfort, and the mind of the uncomfortable student is devoting a stunning amount of cognitive energy to being uncomfortable, and not much is left for actual education.

  29. Wendy says:

    Alicia wrote: “Mobile devices aren???? going to be banned in the workplace, nor should they be. ”

    Well, it depends on what you mean by “workplace.” The MBTA (in Boston) is planning to ban T operators from having their cellphones with them on the job (and for good reason).

    I have been anti-laptop for the past few years, but I’ve been considering moderating my views because I recognize the value of having such easy access to information at our fingertips. I decided on a policy this term of allowing laptops in class on the condition that the user sit in the front row. No one took me up on it.

  30. Timothy Burke says:

    I don’t think I would if I were a student made that offer. Let me put it this way: if a professor said, “You can take notes during my lecture but I need to be able to look at your notes while you’re writing them”, I’d choose the “no notes” option. It sounds like entrapment, a no-win deal. I think if you’re going to scrutinize what students do in your class, you have to be an equal-opportunity scrutinzer. If you operate on a basis of trust, then I think you can fairly say, “I expect that no one will do anything but take notes and look at pertinent information on their laptops” and then deal with obvious breaches of that arrangement if they should become obvious to you. But telling laptop users that they have to sit in the penalty box where you can see them clearly is the worst of all worlds: a total ban makes more sense than that.

  31. Ira Socol says:

    Wendy, reading takingitoutside, you’d probably prefer to reverse that, or to consider how to truly integrate it. You sound like you’ve made the use of technology sound dangerous, which is an unfortunate place to start.

    And, sorry, the MBTA situation is a nonsensical argument. “Astronauts have to wear spacesuits” does not equal “students must wear spacesuits.” Your classroom, theoretically, is a place of information exchange, not a transit system.

  32. Wendy says:

    Tim, I don’t want to watch them. I want their fellow students to watch them. I could then tell from the body language if something inappropriate was being watched/looked at. :) I literally can’t monitor individual students while I’m teaching, and I don’t know how anyone can.

    Ira, re the MBTA thing, I was just challenging an overgeneralization, not making an argument. Calm down. :)

    Re making technology sound dangerous: I can see why you’d think that, but in actuality, I use/talk about technology in the classroom quite a bit. I just know my students and the context of my classroom. I didn’t say my solution this term was what everyone should do; I simply stated that I did it, thinking it might be useful to someone else as an idea to consider implementing based on the context of his or her individual classroom.

  33. Carl says:

    It’s great for me to see takingitoutside’s perspective and Ira’s response. Neat to think along with Tim and Wendy too.

    I try to think about classes as total learning environments and to recruit the students to become more aware of education as a complex interactive process. As part of that, in addition to ‘normal’ coursework I ask students to keep a field journal of their observations, experiences and reflections of the class. (I don’t read them until I’ve graded all their other work.) Often despite lots of prompting the journals are pretty thin and stereotyped: students seize on a narrow range of conventional stimuli and loop monotonously on them. I don’t want to romanticize what’s obviously a wrenching sensory/cognitive overload, but it’s clear that both takingitoutside and Ira experience the classroom with much more phenomenological depth. You guys’ journals would break the curve. Looking at Ira’s novel excerpt it seems strange to call the syndrome ‘attention deficit’, since what he describes looks more like the product of attention surplus.

    In a way the student who sees all the things Ira and takingitoutside see is potentially my ideal student. I feel now like I want to do even more to negotiate a productive engagement with those kids I always love who are all over the place, and that laptops are just one possible tool to accomplish that. In what ways can a kind of multi-focal distraction be a real asset to a class? Ira, how is it even possible to begin that dialogue if students with these abilities and challenges seal themselves behind a shield of prickly stigma management?

  34. Timothy Burke says:

    Wendy: the only thing I’m thinking is that you shouldn’t read much into students not taking you up on your offer (e.g., that this somehow proves that laptop users are up to no good, and fear discovery). Students don’t like to sit in the first row in any class no matter what technologies they’re using and almost all of them will avoid a situation where they appear to be under special scrutiny or where they know the professor doesn’t care for some practice that they’d otherwise employ.

  35. Ira Socol says:

    I’m so thrilled that this conversation is rolling along:

    A few things –

    Wendy, I know I’m touchy on this, but let me tell two stories. First, when I first received TTS and writing support – via a laptop, I had professors who said, “please sit in the back so you don’t distract people.” That was really cruel. Second, I once had a SpEd teacher say all her kids had been banned from the computer lab because one had tried to strangle another with the keyboard cord. At first I was about to suggest wireless keyboards, but then I realized that we wouldn’t ban other things – books, pens, etc. so why this? I’m quite certain the MBTA doesn’t want its Motormen reading books while operating trains either. You don’t ban books though.

    Carl, If I could rename it I’d say “Attention-Discrimination Hyperactivity Difference” ADHD is “hypofiltering” while Autism might be “hyperfiltering” – it is a question of how we filter and prioritize incoming stimuli. I also tend to suggest a real evolutionary benefit to “hypofiltering,” better in the hunt, better in battle, better at knowing that that cloud is dangerous even while ‘focused’ on planting. Better at learning a wide range of things.

    I can offer the Gramscian perspective. Most teachers are “traditionally attentioned” and have succeeded as such. They apply pressure to maintain the academic system of traditional focus because it maintains their position of power. Switching fully to what I would like would change the universe of “winners.” Wendy might lose while I might finally win. The trick is to construct an environment which expands the universe of winners. This requires real care, offering real choices (not “sit in the front row if you want to do this”). I’m not suggesting that its an easy path to negotiate.

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