One of the largest challenges and frustrations in teaching in the 21st century is dealing with student laptops. I originally had no policy on the matter, until it became quite clear that too many students were getting too distracted. One student even regularly checked facebook and email right in front to the TA. Other times, I have been in class observing my TA’s and students keep on using their laptops for non-academic purposes in clear view of me. It’s also really obvious when there’s part of class for which there’s clearly no need to take notes, but students faces are intently in their laptops. Of course, one option is to just ban them. Since I have come to hate actual handwriting, I don’t want to force them to do that for their notes. If I was a student today, I’d definitely be on my laptop typing instead of writing in a notebook. My latest policy– which seems to be working reasonably well– is to allow laptop use but require that when using laptop, student sit in the front and center of the class. Even if I cannot see the screen, there’s clearly much less illegitimate use when the students are right in front of me. What I have noticed, though, is that with this new laptop policy, more of the distraction is getting pushed onto smartphones. Frustrating, but still an improvement, because the truth is a student on facebook distracts the classmates around them. A student looking at facebook on a smartphone, much less so. Anyway, given my interest in this topic, I was very intrigued to read about the following studies that used innovative ways to look at laptop use in class and it’s impact:
For years, researchers have conducted studies in hopes of answering whether having laptops in class undermines student learning. In the avalanche of literature, one can find data pointing each way. A 2006 study of 83 undergraduate psychology students suggested that having laptops in class distracts both the students who use them and their classmates. Several law professors have written triumphalpapers documenting their own experiments banning laptops, which one of them complained had transformed his students from thoughtful, selective note-takers into “court reporters” reduced to mindlessly transcribing his lectures. And yet otherpapershave argued that laptop bans are reductive exercises that ignore the possibility that some students — maybe even a majority — might in fact benefit from being able to use computers in class if only professors would provide a modicum of discipline and direction.
Still, there is one notable consistency that spans the literature on laptops in class: most researchers obtained their data by surveying students and professors.
The authors of two recent studies of laptops and classroom learning decided that relying on student and professor testimony would not do. They decided instead to spy on students.
In one study, a St. John’s University law professor hired research assistants to peek over students’ shoulders from the back of the lecture hall. In the other, a pair of University of Vermont business professors used computer spyware to monitor their students’ browsing activities during lectures.
Short version: a ton of non-coursework laptop use going on. The impact: not so bad, unless you are IMing:
Students who frequently checked e-mail and surfed non-course-related sites did not appear to sweat for their sins on homework, quizzes, tests, or the final exam. High rates of instant-messaging activity, however, showed significant correlations with poor performances on all but one test during the semester.
Seems reasonable enough. Back in my day, I would read the student newspaper during portions of class where it was clear I didn’t need to be taking notes. It was very easy to pay enough attention to rapidly switch back over to note-taking mode. I suspect IMing takes too much cognitive resources for that easy switch-over, but reading email is more like reading the newspaper. Anyway, interesting stuff. And, I’m still pretty happy with my current laptop policy, but I’m definitely going to come up with a new policy on smartphones. Even if it doesn’t hurt their grades, it sure as hell annoys me.