Computers in The Classroom?

by Erik Voeten on August 20, 2012 · 37 comments

in Academia,Education

I am pondering banning laptops and tablets from my classroom. The upsides of this are obvious: avoiding the distractions that come with Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, and all the other wonderful things the internet has to offer. Research rather unambiguously shows that small distractions (such as checking e-mail) lead to considerable drops in levels of concentration and abilities to retain information. I am quite sure my classes are boring at times but students will have to find a way to deal with that without escaping to the Web’s temptations.

Yet the downsides of banning laptops and tablets are also considerable. I am less worried about note-taking (there is an alternative!) but my classes rely on lots of readings that are made available electronically. Banning laptops would force my students to print these materials, which rather defeats the purpose.

I would love to learn from readers’ experiences (both from students and faculty). Any feedback on bans? Are there policies that fall short of banning but still sufficiently discourage the web’s trappings? I wish my university had a possibility for locally turning off the wireless network but that does not seem to exist.

{ 37 comments }

A Student August 20, 2012 at 9:26 pm

Students are adults who pay tuition, right? Shouldn’t they be allowed to play angry birds if they want?

One problem that I have encountered is if people play Tetris next to me it’s hard not to look, so perhaps the prof could make an announcement about laptop courtesy.

Vincent

Anonymous Coward August 20, 2012 at 9:31 pm

Outside of seminars where you’ll naturally be monitoring students quite closely, laptop bans etc have always struck me as silly and probably counterproductive.

What are you going to do about the students who use a laptop/tablet anyway? I mean, I’d be astonished if you somehow have the legal authority to take them away. All you can do is tell them to leave, and call security when they refuse, or dock their grade, or verbally abuse them.

Won’t you just drive students towards checking their mail or facebook on their phones, which they can just hide behind notebooks or in their laps in classes larger than seminars?

Steph August 20, 2012 at 9:32 pm

From a student perspective, I see both sides of the argument. Honestly, for many of my classes I can run rampant with distractions. While it doesn’t necessarily affect ‘what I have learned’ in a class, it is disrespectful towards the teacher, and could create a disconnect depending on the learning style of the students.
On the other side of that, I only ever seem to find distractions in the very dry lecture-only methods of teaching, or teaching that isn’t very note heavy. I’d never zone out during my political theory class, due to the sheer amount of concepts I need to absorb. If a professor is able to ask a bunch of questions, or get students involved (nigh impossible I know) I never disconnect, I’m too busy in the flow of the classroom. But that depends on class size of course.
If you’re materials are online, I’d forget about the ban. People who’d be willing to print out the readings, or have detailed notes will be close to nonexistent, and it would limit any sort of discussion. There are personal little blockers, but the professor I saw use them were mainly to block out phone transmissions.

Zach August 20, 2012 at 9:34 pm

How important is following along with the article in class? I don’t think banning laptops forces students to print the articles, it just prevents them from skimming the article while you are going over it in class.

Drew August 20, 2012 at 9:35 pm

I’ve had classes where the entire reading list consists of pdfs posted to Blackboard and computers are prohibited during class. To work around the issues with accessing the readings I usually summarize what I find to be the main concepts, taking care to note unique methodological points and so on, and use these notes in class. I find that in doing this I can compare what I found important in the articles/book chapters with what my professors consider significant enough to incorporate into the lecture, improving my overall comprehension of the readings. In many cases this works better for my comprehension of the articles than having the readings accessible in class, plus the summaries serve as useful review material. Yet, not being able to refer to specific passages or tables has at times detracted from a fully-engaged class discussion. Overall though, I don’t think a laptop ban has enough negatives to outweigh a less distracting environment.

To clarify a potential bias, I find almost any student computer use in class to be a distraction from the lecture. Even if the students are not on Facebook or Twitter, the computer is too often being used for something irrelevant.

Mike August 20, 2012 at 9:36 pm

The last few semesters I have allowed students to use computers if they come to my office hours & sign a contract which says that they will disable wifi & only use it for course-related tasks. So far this had been effective, as far as I can tell.

kim yi dionne August 22, 2012 at 12:52 pm

Mike – is there any chance you’d be willing to share your contract? It sounds like a great solution.

Anonymous Coward August 20, 2012 at 9:38 pm

Another thing is that you’re going to have students who have an accommodation to use a laptop, tablet, etc to take notes or for some other reason, so you’re not going to get rid of laptops altogether. So it’s going to put you in a difficult position when students ask you why $STUDENT gets to use a banned laptop.

sara August 20, 2012 at 9:39 pm

Do you have TA’s? If you do allow laptops, I’ve found it to be fairly effective to have TA’s sit in the back of the class and ask people to leave (not just close the computer) if they’re doing anything but taking notes, looking at readings, etc. Of course announce this policy up front – you should only need 1-2 times of someone being publicly shamed to put an end to the Facebook-ing.

I do agree with the above commenter that students are adults who don’t have to pay attention if they don’t want to. However, multi-tasking on laptops is also incredibly distracting to those who are unlucky enough to be sitting next to/behind the person who’s decided to spend lecture watching a video (YES, I have literally seen this happen). So I think it’s important to have some policy in effect to control this. The choice should be between coming to class and not distracting others or not coming to lecture at all.

Julia August 20, 2012 at 10:05 pm

I finished undergrad this spring, so I have a pretty obvious bias on this one. But here are my thoughts, for what they’re worth. I apologize in advance for typos; the combination of a small comments box and an iPad may cause a bit of mayhem.

As a student, I took notes much better on my computer than by hand. I type faster than I write (an informal survey of four friends who happend to be on gchat while I wrote this indicates 100% of my peers do too… Highly scientific, I know,) and the ability to move around in my notes without scribbling in the margins or adding in long, winding arrows is very valuable. Computerized notes have many benefits, including tidiness, searchability, and the ability to include other types of media: hyperlinks, audio clips from class (Word even lets you record what’s happening as you type a note, and then replay the audio directly from the document), power point slides or graphs. There certainly are alternatives, but my personal experience was that I had an easier time studying afterwords with digital notes than with notebooks and highlighters.

My father, a professor, refuses to believe that this is the case, but I would contend that if your class is interesting and your students know what’s good for them, having internet access is actually more of a boon than a burden. I certainly had a few classes where I wandered to my email in class (I’m looking at you, Parties and Party Systems), but when I tried to prevent distraction by closing the computer, I invariably switched to doodling in my notebook or doing mental multiplication to figure out how many seconds were left in class. We’re bright young adults. If we’re bored, we’ll find something else to do, with or without the computer. On the other hand, in an interesting class where students are engaged, having easy access to jstor, dictionary.com and Google News can open up a world of discussion that would not have been accessible otherwise. Quick google searches of case references in my Constitutional Law class last semester, for example, were often the source of helpful insights into cases that we might not have read for class, but were pertinent to the conversation we were having.

In many ways it depends on the class. I liked having my laptop in lectures for many of the aforementioned (not sure if that is a real word. The iPad seems to think so) reasons. It was more of a burden in seminars, where it often felt like it blocked me off from the discussions. But ultimately, I think it should be your students’ decision. If they choose not to pay attention in class because Facebook is more entertaining, then it’s their fault when they miss out on important content. It isn’t your job to force content down adults’ throats. By the same token, if you can’t be engaging enough to keep them off facebook, then just banning one mode of distraction isn’t going to prevent inattentiveness.

Jack August 20, 2012 at 10:17 pm

I’ve found that asking students who prefer to use laptops to sit in the back row tends to work pretty well. If they’re legitimately doing work, it won’t make a difference. However, if they’re Facebooking/tweeting/etc., they won’t distract the non-computer users next to or behind them.

If attendance is mandatory in your classes, this next step won’t work. If you don’t require attendance, you can make it clear from day one that attendance is optional. It is their choice to come to class, so they shouldn’t waste their time (or yours) by doing anything other than taking notes and following the readings and discussion.

Fmr. Student & Fmr. Teacher August 20, 2012 at 10:47 pm

I would like to provide you with a short case study illustrating at least one person’s (mine) frustrations with a course that enacted such a ban. A certain senior fmr. official that teaches at Georgetown decided to ban laptops, tablets, and basically anything electronic in the course. As a result, some students opted to not take notes during the course. People suggested that they had typed their notes in courses since high school, and that every single workplace presented the same challenge each day– including every single US government agency (at least within the offices). The policy was completely inflexible and generally ridiculous.

In particular, I was annoyed because I type faster and more easily than I write (and more legibly!) and was denied this possibility outright because of the fear that I could be sending an email, playing angry birds, etc. and not paying attention. Course notes that usually would have been searchable, backed up on the cloud, shared easily, trees saved, referenced, referred to, and revisited were denied many of these possibilities because I cannot write as quickly as I can type.

When I type I am left with a balance of time (which I would not have if I were writing) which I then use to think about what the professor is saying/ the concept being discussed etc. By denying me this right and this extra time, I could not in fact concentrate as well as when I had a computer. In addition to the persisting annoyance at this policy, I spent extra time writing down what the professor was saying, as opposed to getting it down and being able to concentrate on it/ engage with it critically. Not everyone uses computers to multi-task, get distracted, etc. Some genuinely use it as a tool to aid learning, and even prefer to do so, and as a result banning such tools is very frustrating.

Banning computers or these devices anywhere is absolutely absurd considering how much we rely on them for real life, work, and study. The argument that they are distracting is correct. But so are other things. Breaking up with a boyfriend/ girlfriend, having a sick parent, a problem at work, etc. is also distracting and taking these devices away will not improve attention paid if people do not want to pay attention. Personally, I think any person at any time should have the right to not pay attention for any reason- it may be day-dreaming, or checking out someone nearby, passing notes, or just thinking about something else.

I will also say that st some point in time, adults have to decide whether or not to pay attention to what is valuable and unfolding in front of them, or to focus on the unimportant email they just received about an internship, junk, etc. This is a facet of 21st century life that we must all learn to manage and live with. Frankly, the people that are the worst trespassers of distraction of adults in Washington with blackberry/ iphone hands during meetings, speeches, and other occasions they should not be using these devices.

What it really boils down to is convincing people that paying attention has endless benefits. If they are not convinced of this at 18, 23, or 27, it’s going to be a rough semester for all.

Thanks to the invention of the computer, the many benefits of paying attention can now be recorded, searched, saved, easily referenced, reviewed, and shared. Paper is pretty is decent, but has quite a few drawbacks- and doesn’t quite immortalize your words and teachings the way a hard drive or the cloud does. As a former teacher that dealt with this myself, I found it to be extremely useful to have students with and on computers. They can help people engage in many ways not possible when limited to just pencil and paper.

I always paid attention in your class (even during the very few boring parts) because it was usually very good. The Stats class that you teach at MSFS is one of the few enlightened courses that requires learning both theory and practical application of that theory utilizing a computer and software/ technology. For this reason, it is one of the better offerings on hand. I can’t tell you how much I appreciated this aspect of the course and the requirements. However I think, banning computers in one class section- requiring it in another doesn’t make much sense to me.

Matt Dickenson August 20, 2012 at 10:50 pm

Here is another perspective (which I do not necessarily endorse) for your consideration: http://www.kosmosonline.org/2011/12/19/faculty-debate-should-professors-allow-laptops-in-class/

Jake August 20, 2012 at 11:02 pm

I tried one lengthy comment and it failed; this time I’ll just say I think a ban is a bad idea that puts the cart before the horse pedagogically speaking, and point to Lisa Anderson’s piece in Perspectives this summer as my evidence.

Zach August 20, 2012 at 11:22 pm

I also graduated this May, so I have a fairly fresh perspective and a relevant story. In my introductory microeconomics course, a lecture of 165+ students, the professor banned cell phones, laptops and tablets unless someone had a specific permit from services for students with disabilities. He enforced this by informing students, in the first week, in the syllabus and in class, that any violation of this policy would result in him taking the phone, having the student walk to the front of the class, publicly apologize for distracting the course and wasting time, and also docking 10 (I think it was 10) points from the student’s 330-point total. It’s nearly impossible to get an A in this professor’s class to begin with due to the difficulty of his three 100-point tests–10 points can significantly impact a grade. This happened once in the entire semester. The entire row of seats in which I sat did not use cell phones the entire semester, much less tablets or laptops.

Now, econ courses have textbooks, which is a bit different than what you have…What I would say is that if students have e-readers without easy Internet access (Kindles, Nooks, but not the tablet versions) they could use them for reading, no problem. The question of laptops brings further difficulties. In many of my classes, I used a laptop. In many of my classes, I checked e-mail, spent most of it on Facebook or Google Reader, paid half of my attention to the discussion and note-taking (I did indeed take notes) and popped in and out as necessary. In my mind, I was paying the tuition, I can use my laptop–especially as an out-of-state student paying ~$1650 for a three-credit class. Conversely, professors are paid (not particularly well, necessarily, but paid) to teach and research. In general, I refrained from using my laptop in seminar-style courses, as I wanted to be more involved in the discussion. In those courses, I then didn’t take notes.

I wouldn’t ban laptops, tablets or e-readers, were I in your place. For the reasons Julia mentioned (certainly helpful in many cases) and for the right of the tuition-paying students. If you want to ban laptops in courses where readings are done primarily via textbook and in lecture format, I’d go with the example of my professor.

Remember, students can choose to not take your class, and can drop without penalty (if the policy is the same at your university) in the first week. Once the syllabus is clear and accepted, it is the handbook for the course. Students ought to abide by it.

JR August 21, 2012 at 12:19 am

I think the main distinction is between undergraduate and graduate-level classes. I often found the ability to reference class readings and/or notes from other courses to be quite valuable in graduate coursework, but it was usually unnecessary in large undergraduate lectures. My comment thus pertains more to the undergraduate classroom.

While I certainly agree with a number of the arguments against a technology ban, I can’t help but question the point that students today are used to taking notes on laptops and can thus type faster than they can write. This lends itself not to taking notes, but to taking dictation. Undergraduates, especially first and second year students who have had the good fortune to use laptops throughout high school, often end up with the rough equivalent of a transcript, rather than notes of the lecture’s key points.

If (as some of us like to think) one of the purposes of higher education is to teach students how to identify, follow, and analyze the central elements of an argument, this is an important distinction. One of the best lessons I learned as an undergraduate was how to avoid taking 5 pages of notes on 15 pages of reading. It took more effort, not less, to find the core of an argument and the key evidence supporting it, rather than noting every associated point. It seems to me that we would be doing our students a disservice if we did not encourage them to apply a similar standard to lectures.* Banning laptops and tablets outright may not be the most efficient way to do this, but it is certainly one option.

Of course, if this point is not a particular concern, permitting laptops but informing the class that you will cold-call distracted students to answer questions is always a good option for public shaming.

*This is, of course, not to suggest that any parts of the esteemed author’s lectures are unworthy of attention.

Former student August 21, 2012 at 12:26 am

I don’t really see the dilemma. My university just disabled all Internet connections in classrooms – no WiFi, no Ethernet, while keeping them open in all other areas (libereries, offices, etc.). As a consecuence, I had the ability to use my laptop in class without getting acsess to the net. In case of PDF files requierd in class, everybody just downloaded the required papers and articles prior to class. Simple as that.

Mark B. August 21, 2012 at 1:46 am

As a student I did not like laptops in the classroom. They were extremely distracting to both the user and people sitting near/behind the user. Plus, I never liked taking notes on a computer (contrary to, I think, everyone else who has commented!)

As an instructor I still do not like laptops in class, especially when it is easy to see people craning their necks to see what Sally is doing on Facebook and where Sam is going online shopping etc. That being said, it also became clearer that (a) many people do use laptops for legitimate reasons, (b) reminding people that their laptop can be distracting for other people seems to reduce the amount of time people are screwing around (judging soley on the decrease number of people obviously distracted by the laptop in front of them), and (c) people will just use their phones if you ban laptops.

So I can see both sides, but I think the most effect thing to do is to remind people that their laptop behavior is not private behavior in a class and so their laptops can be distracting for other people. Most students don’t desire to distract their classmates.

David Karger August 21, 2012 at 1:57 am

I’m convinced that there are some really great ways to use computers in the classroom. Unfortunately I don’t think they’ve been discovered yet.

Our work (see below) suggests that students are pretty happy reading online now, so it would be great to avoid printing. You say you’ve got a lot of reading material, but how much of it is actually read in class? Instead of printing, if there are bits you want to focus on, you could project them.

For *outside* class, I’ll plug our nb system (http://nb.mit.edu/), a free site for collaborative annotation and discussion of class reading materials. You upload your documents and students hold forum-like discussions in the document margins. Anchoring the discussion in the text is great for close readings and for highlighting/discussing confusing sections. Nb has been used successfully in several universities in tens of classes in science, engineering, government, and humanities.

Naadir Jeewa August 21, 2012 at 3:03 am

Considering that local education authorities in the UK spend a considerable sum of money buying students with learning disabilities a laptop, an extra battery, and mind mapping software, you’ll probably get a note from the disability office if you implemented a ban. I’d be distraught in your class, as a dyspraxic with handwriting that drifts 3 lines up and down.

Plus the benefits of a laptop mentioned above are correct. Global search and cloud storage is a wonderful thing.

J the Student August 21, 2012 at 6:43 am

Most points have already been made, so here are my two cents.

Short of locking students up in a Faraday cage (or cover the classroom with http://whatsnext.blogs.cnn.com/2012/07/18/signal-blocking-wallpaper-stops-wi-fi-stealing-and-comes-in-a-snowflake-pattern/ ), Wi-Fi blocking will not work. Mobile networks will get them online (through handheld and tethered devices) just as easily.

Have you talked to professors from technology-intensive departments (CS, architecture, engineering, etc.), and see how they manage distracting laptop users?

Number Three August 21, 2012 at 7:09 am

This is one of those issues on which, I think, a little self-awareness comes in handy. Have you *ever* taken out the iPhone or surfed the ‘net on your laptop during a work session, including a boring panel at a conference or one of those interminable service committee meetings? Why did you do that? Was it b/c you are easily distracted by technology? Probably not–you were probably *already* distracted/bored/not paying attention. Don’t confuse the symptom (Internet use) with the disease (failure to keep your audience’s attention). The latter, alas, is something that banning technology cannot solve.

Devin August 21, 2012 at 11:04 am

Thank you for this discussion. As someone who is just making the transition from graduate student to professor, I know that this is a genuine dilemma. Over the course of college I became almost entirely reliant on computer note-taking, and bringing my laptop to class proved a nearly constant source of distraction. The same was true of graduate school, even in seminars, until I essentially re-learned how to take notes by hand. There are, of course, disadvantages to hand note-taking (lack of searchability, for example), but the potential for distraction is much lower. Some proponents of allowing computers (e.g., http://www.kosmosonline.org/2011/12/19/faculty-debate-should-professors-allow-laptops-in-class/) claim that laptop distraction is a symptom of bad-teaching-induced boredom, not a cause, but I think this a little too glib. Whether a student becomes distracted from class is a joint function of the quality of the class and the ease and appeal of potential distractions. What political junkie among us, if in class on Election Day, would not be tempted to check the returns on our iPhone, regardless of the quality of the professor? I am also not really swayed by the libertarian “undergrads are grown-ups and should be trusted to learn on their own” argument. Even granting the premise that undergrads are adults, most people could benefit from a little paternalism to help them make the right choices. So yes, professors should be better teachers, but they should also do what they can to limit distractions. In my mind, whether to ban electronic devices in class comes down to an empirical question: is the benefit in terms of limiting distractions and promoting mutual engagement (especially in seminars, where laptops can be like walls surrounding each person at the table) worth the cost in terms of hassle (e.g., printing out readings) and reduced productivity? This fall I’m planning to ban laptops in the 20-person seminar I’m teaching, so we’ll see how that goes…

Joe U. August 21, 2012 at 12:58 pm

I ban all laptops and all electronic devices in both my lectures and seminars. The students don’t mind at all, and they pay attention. I’ve had this policy for five years now without problem.

Frank August 21, 2012 at 6:32 pm

I have banned laptops, etc., for over 10 years because they interfere with discussion and problem-solving. I have never had a student raise the issue in evaluations. Another possibility, done by a colleague: declare the front of the classroom a laptop-free zone and make the laptoppers stay in the back so they don’t disturb others.

Dave August 21, 2012 at 7:03 pm

Erik – one thing I’ve done is teach the concept of the collective action problem, then set one up – the general idea is that the whole group (usually 400 or so, in my large intro IR) gets certain benefits like extra credit points or get to drop the lowest quiz grade IFF none of my TAs (who are scattered in seats around the auditorium) do not see anyone using Facebook, email, Twitter, etc. the entire 90 min. lecture. I also threaten to single out the offender who costs the group the benefit (though I’ve never actually done so).

Does it make a difference? Don’t know, but I do know that on days I make this deal (and part of the key is not to do it every day) there are practically no cheaters/free-riders.

Lanethea Mathews August 21, 2012 at 9:33 pm

I teach at a small liberal arts college and have a open access policy regarding technology, in part because I incorporate twitter and blogs into my teaching–indeed I encourage my students to read this blog! One reason that my students seems to not abuse laptops and phones and iPads and the like is probably because my classes are relatively small (30 or fewer students) and this makes it more difficult for students to surf the web or text or tweet in the middle of things. And I work very hard to keep my classes interactive and this I think it’s down of the potential of digital wandering. The teaching and learning folks connected to APSA have covered great terrain thinking about these and similar issues, such as teaching with twitter, blogs, etc.

Katie August 21, 2012 at 10:20 pm

At Grove City College, my alma mater, there were several professors who were insistent about keeping computers out of the classroom. I would say it was unilaterally a success. The resistance of the professor against the general trend and even in some cases the administration was in itself a strong statement for students to process and in many cases, to admire and emulate. It gives students a chance to see what their life would be like without the distractions of the internet.

If nothing else, you can allow a few minutes at the beginning of class for students to download the materials, and then request that they turn off their wireless for the rest of class. It is fairly easy to tell whether computers are plugged into the wireless.

Kiara stewart August 22, 2012 at 4:05 am

According to me , laptops should not be totally banned , the students should be allowed to use laptops at the time when its use is needed . If the problem is that the students are using social networking sites like Facebook , Twitter and all that then these sites should be banned in working or teaching hours . with this , they cant open those sits and will try to concentrate on their work .

Ivan Babichev August 22, 2012 at 10:56 am

I’m a graduate student who consistently uses a laptop in my admittedly small (6-10 person) classes. I find it incredibly helpful as a note-taking tool, and wish I had discovered that LaTeX was an excellent note taking language in undergraduate, (My GPA would probably be about .3-.4 higher), the biggest advantage is that it makes one’s notes searchable, which is a huge time saver when studying. Also Being able to use electronic copies of articles in class a huge paper-saver.

I think the consensus is that the students who want to be in the class will benefit from tech, the students who don’t want to be there will probably learn more sans the distraction.

Jestak August 22, 2012 at 2:05 pm

As a community college economics instructor, I ban laptops with an exception when the college DSS office requests that a student be allowed to use a laptop for note-taking as a disability accomodation. My classroom is small enough that monitoring this is not difficult. I have had virtually no protest at this policy in the 5-6 years that I have enforced it. I find that in a community college, I really need to focus on promoting a healthy learning environment in the classroom, and therefore on preventing distractions; this in my mind far, far outweighs any supposed benefit to a handful of students who “take better notes with their laptops.”

Matt_L August 22, 2012 at 3:51 pm

I have two policies for laptops and electronics in the classroom. I ban laptops, phones and tablets in my freshman and sophomore classes. In my upper level courses and seminars students can use the laptop as long as its not disruptive.

My reason for banning the laptops is simple. The new students don’t have the skills to use the laptop effectively. Even the best intentioned generally end up distracting themselves and others. I don’t have a problem with students distracting themselves, but if you are playing angry birds or posting on Facebook, you are also distracting the students behind you in class. Not cool. My first responsibility is to provide a safe and effective learning environment for everyone. I am under no obligation to allow you to use the note taking tool of your choice if it will distract others.

Second, I am not persuaded that students take better notes by typing them into their computer. As JR pointed out above, there is a difference between note taking and dictation. Most undergraduate students do a crap job of taking notes regardless of the technology. I have not seen a difference in the test scores and final grades to justify using a laptop to take notes.

Finally, while I do hope that my class is interesting and engaging, I don’t worry about it being entertaining. Lets face it, a lot of what we have to do to learn things is boring. When I studied German there was no substitute for doing all that wrote memorization for vocabulary and verb conjugations. Grammar homework every night and verbal drills in the language lab were boring, but that work made it possible for me to do more interesting things like read novels and articles in German. Learning is hard and it is not always entertaining. Boredom isn’t an excuse for you to play angry birds in the back of the classroom instead of attending to your own education.

Matt August 23, 2012 at 9:59 am

As a graduate student who has TA’d for a professor that has such a ban, I find it to be very useful, and have since initiated my own ban in sections. Obviously, exceptions are made for students with disabilities and whatnot, and it is quite easy to explain to other students why those exceptions are made, unlike one of the other commenters seems to suggest. I recommend to the students that they print out any notes that they have from the readings and bring them to class, in addition to their books (if there is one), and its not a big deal. It encourages more discussion and generally improves the class, not to mention it’s a lot harder to fake scanning your printed out notes for points than it is to stare blankly at a screen, pretending to look for something.

Also, the idea that quality teaching will solve the problem is not always true. Just because someone is teaching, for example, an excellent and engaging lecture in political science, does not mean that Suzie, the journalism student, will find it as interesting, especially if she’s just there to fulfill a graduation requirement. In cases such as this, there is no easy solution.

That being said, I do think that this ban applies predominately to undergraduates in large lectures, and much less so to undergrads in seminars or graduate students. As noted in the original post, forcing the students to print out every single article for seminar is a poor exercise, and succeeds mostly in just killing trees. For upper-level students, the smaller class size allows for easier monitoring, and forces the student to pay greater attention lest they get called on for something. Plus, those sorts of courses rely on having the readings directly available to a degree that larger lectures simply do not (usually).

Rex Brynen August 23, 2012 at 10:15 pm

I’m not sure why laptops would be a problem in the classroom. If students are playing Angry Birds rather than listening to lectures, they will presumably pay the price at exam time—and, for most, knowledge of that should be a deterrent. If, on the other hand, failing to pay attention in class has no significant implications for exam performance, there is obviously something wrong with the professor’s use of classroom time. Indeed, more broadly if a lecturer can’t make political science interesting enough to engage the overwhelming majority of the class the overwhelming majority of the time, they also might want to rethink what material they are delivering, and how they are delivering it.

As has already pointed out, there are a lot of pluses to having laptops in the class. Taking notes and accessing course materials are examples that have already been mentioned above, but to this I would add researching questions before asking them in class and fact-checking the prof (it’s good for us!).

Ceyda E. August 26, 2012 at 8:58 pm

Having been a student at Georgetown and observing fellow friends’ experiences, I am all for not using laptops in the classroom. I have been in your classroom twice, and I did not use a laptop. Several reasons:

1) In a two-and-a-half hour seminar class, with a computer on, it is impossible to avoid checking your email, the news etc. Impossible. And once disconnected from the flow of the lecture, it’s often very hard to concentrate.

2) Note-taking is possible, even better, via writing with a pen. It prevents copying what the professor exactly says, which differentiates a lecture from a textbook.

3) Heavy-reading/pdf’s have not been an issue, because as someone else wrote before, it leads students to take notes prior to the class or summarize the main arguments. Moreover, when I had a computer before me in other classes, there were times I just searched a term as the professor asked about it. With a computer and a pdf in front of you, there is less need to do the readings beforehand. Many students are much less prepared that way.

4) There are professors who allow computers but then exercise a strict control in the classroom. That’s very frustrating–thus, I would disagree with the suggestions of getting a TA check people’s computers etc.

5) Not having a screen in front of you allows for more direct participation. Considering you are teaching seminar classes, I think it makes absolute sense to shape the in-class environment so that it helps participation. Sort of like sitting around a circle. Having fellow classmates staring at their computers is distracting for everybody–we all know that it is not possible to focus on the lecture completely with having a computer. And we know someone else is checking their email etc. It is simply very distracting.

Overall, I think for the purposes of seminar classes, it makes a lot of sense to ask students to bring notebooks–made of paper. The only limitation that came up to my mind is not being able to search terms/ideas that are unfamiliar to some students at times. It is nice to have Google to catch up with the class without interrupting it. But then again, that replaces asking questions directly to the professor.

It is just my opinion (and many of my SFS friends’) that I have learned much much better in classes to which I did not take a computer with.

Foreign reader August 27, 2012 at 3:00 am

I’ve had exactly the same debate on my French academic blog. I introduced the idea, gave valid motives, but then concluded from the comments (by more experienced teachers) that this would be a hopeless move with little gain and huge potential losses.

Anon August 27, 2012 at 11:19 am

A very good way to use computers, etc in the classroom: http://lecturetools.com/

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