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.