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Laptops in Class: Good or Evil?

June 1, 2009
Flickr Photo Credit: John Conners

Flickr Photo Credit: John Conners

(This post was written with my experience with the Bachelor of Commerce program at the University of Victoria)

With the advent of Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites, it seems universities are defaulting to laptop bans instead of embracing the technology. The reality of laptops in the classroom affects three parties: the student using the laptop, the student’s classmates, and the professor teaching the class. Let’s look at the weaknesses in the common arguments for a laptop ban in each category:

1. The student using the laptop:

Argument: Laptops will distract the students

An argument against students using laptops is that it will distract them from the lecture. Ergo, removing the laptops will engage the classroom. This view is wrong for two reasons: laptops do not cause distractions, and distractions are good to have in the classroom.

A laptop does not cause distractions, it simply exposes the  distracted behaviour of the person using it. It is similar to the saying, “a computer is only as smart as the person using it”. A computer is only as distracting as the person wants it to be.  Take away the computer and that same student will daydream, doodle, or flick his pen (arguably less productive behaviours). Certainly, a laptop does make the distraction more visible than a daydreaming student who is laptop-less. This should been seen as advantageous to the professor because it is a clear indication that his lectures are not engaging the classroom.
Distractions are good to have in the classroom because the same distractions, if not more, will be present in the real world (just ask Tim Ferriss). Part of the learning for the student should be about developing an ability to manage distractions so that he/she does not become a slave to them in the “real world”.

It is not necessary to go extensively into the benefits of having a laptop in class. It is worth noting, however, that a laptop ban punishes students who are able to manage their distractions, who have made an investment that can enable them to contribute current events to the discussions, and who would like to take neat notes that are easily re-formatted. Are these the students who should be stifled?

Finally, with the mass adoption of the smart phone, most students will soon have all of the “evil internet” in their pocket to distract themselves. It may be time to start rethinking the traditional teaching method.

2. The student’s classmates:

Argument: The student with the laptop will distract other students in the classroom.

Another often-cited argument for the ban of laptops within the classroom is that the laptop student is distracting to those around him. There are two ways in which the non-laptop student can be distracted: from watching the games/videos that the laptop student plays and from the clicking of the keyboards.

The laptop is not to blame when a student without a laptop makes the decision to watch a YouTube video of dancing cats instead of listening to the lecture. Think about it. The student finds more value in watching a dancing cat than the content of the presentation. Is the lecturer to blame for not being engaging enough? Perhaps the format of sitting through five hours of Power Point a day is not the way to engage your students. One thing is clear, the student who decides to look at the video is to blame. However, it is not reasonable to ban laptops just because some students can’t help themselves from looking at a game of Scrabble. One solution may be for the campus computer store to offer discount privacy screens, or for the professor to have monitoring software.

The second way laptops can distract non-users is the noise the keyboards make.  This is a valid argument, however, if a student insists on flicking her pen and ends up dropping it every two attempts, do you take her pen away? No. She is asked politely to stop flicking her pen. Likewise, if a student is typing aggressively and distracting other students, she could be asked to type more quietly. Keep in mind that tapping will still be there in the “real world”, such as in an office job in a cubicle – although I would not be surprised if net books were not entirely touch-screen in three years, eliminating keystroke noise altogether.

3. The professor teaching the class:

Argument: Professors do not like looking up at a bunch of laptop backs.

Anyone who has ever given a presentation and had his audience preoccupied can fully identify with this frustration. Therefore, it is completely understandable that professors would want the laptops, or distractions, removed. There is a fundamental issue, however, that is being overlooked: the maximum attention span of an adult is around 20 minutes for a given topic (even the brightest in the world only get to give 20 minute lectures at TED). This means that there is around 1 hour and 10 minutes of time wasted in each traditional class of 1 hour and 30 minutes. The point being made is that laptops are not the “distraction enemy” of the professors – the duration of the class is.

There are two tactics professors could use when faced with a classroom full of distracted laptoppers: they can ban laptops outright, or they can see it as an opportunity to engage the class through a new medium. Granted, the second option will have more of a learning curve, but it is likely to yield much greater results. For example, how many professors tape their classes and offer them in a podcast format so that students can access the lecture when they are feeling most productive (which most likely is NOT at 8 a.m.)? If this were the case, a professor might argue that 80% of the class would not show up. Why is this a bad thing? Think about it. Enthusiastic students will engage in conversation with each other because of the smaller class sizes, and other students who prefer to learn alone (or late at night with others) now can! They won’t be distracting anyone with YouTube, and the professor gets to teach more intimately to keen students. Everybody wins.

By banning technology in the classroom, teaching styles will never evolve and will remain in the static, read-from-the-power-point, 1-hour-and-10-minutes-too-long, format.  The long-term implication is that the program in which the ban operates may become obsolete, relative to programs that have overcome the obstacles of incorporating technology. Unfortunately, by trying to engage everyone with policies like laptop bans, mandatory attendance, and fixed seating, you end up engaging no one.

Conclusion

What will happen to a program that does not change? One where creative solutions to disruptions by technology have not been found? Where potential cannot be realized? It falls behind. It falls behind in two respects: in the content that it teaches, and in the way that it teaches the content. The way information is exchanged is changing dramatically, and it is about time that the powers that be started embracing this change, instead of resisting it.

Which side do you agree with and why?

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. Yoshi permalink
    June 1, 2009 10:55 pm

    In addition to your point, dane, here is my opinion:

    If laptops are allowed, students do not need to print out all the powerpoint slides. For those who do not have their own printer such as
    students living by themselves or international/exchange students, it is
    nothing but waste of money. Taking 5 courses per semester, having 10
    classes per week, printing 5-7 pages of slides per class, continuing this for whole 12 week semester costs each student extra $60-90 in addition to tuitions and textbooks!!
    International students like me pay huge amount of money for tuitions, we all want to save as much money as possible. Therefore, having no-laptops policy is definitely not friendly for us, students from other countries.

    Also, by not letting students print off slides, university can
    eliminate paper waste, which means being more sustainable!!! Although
    university has recycle blue boxes, recycling tons of paper does cost
    money. It is obviouse that minimizing the number of paper being printed is
    better off both environmentally and financially.

    Like they repeatedly emphasize, BCom is a faculty that is aiming to be
    international and sustainable. But, this no laptops policy is definitely going against it, I think.

    • danelow permalink*
      June 2, 2009 10:17 am

      Hi Yoshi,

      Great point. A lot of paper is wasted and at extra cost to the student. This paper consumption may be justifiable if these notes were kept longer (on average) than the length of the semester.

      Cheers,

      Dane

  2. Lucas permalink
    June 2, 2009 3:37 am

    I agree that laptops should be alowed in class rooms, although I was not convinced by many of your arguments.

    I don’t really agree with your statement that “laptops do not cause distractions” (to the person using the laptop), however, I do think that if someone decides to bring in their laptop and spend the whole class wondering the internet, this is their choice and it is not our problem that they have decided to not listen to the lecture (and therefore not worth discussing). The only actually relevant problem is that it distracts other classmates.

    You’re claiming that the laptop is not to blame for another student looking at the dancing cat (as an example) instead of paying attention to the lecture. You state that “the student finds more value in watching a dancing cat than the content of the presentation”, but you’re missing the point. When someone shows up late to class and closes the door loudly, students will often look over, and some will lose their train of thought. Does this mean that students think that watching a student arriving to class is more valuable then listening to the lecture? No, these events simply attract your attention whether you like it or not. If you glance towards the front of the class between writing notes and you see a video, whatever it may be, it can attract your attention even though you are trying to pay attention to the lecture. Many times it will only distract you for a few seconds, but if multiple people are watching things on their laptops then this becomes annoying (especially since some class material is really dry and hard to concentrate on, regardless of how enticing the professor tries to make the material).

    Your pen example isn’t really realistic since you are comparing one person dropping a pen versus one person typing. If laptops become allowed in classrooms and are used by many students, then you need to be comparing your example to 10-20 people typing. Telling 10-20 students to “type quietly” isn’t a solution. There is no solution to this part of the problem; everyone will hear typing throughout the class, regardless of what the teacher does. I do agree when you say that typing is widespread in the ‘real world’, and people should be able to deal with a moderate amount of noise. However, if someone is going to make noise in class, they should have a reason to do so. If you’re typing notes, then yes, your noise is justified. However, lots of people are simply messaging their buddies on facebook or MSN, and this noise is unnecessary. You do not need to be doing this during the lecture, and this unnecessary noise is what can annoy other students. Of course, many students sitting on facebook are often in class simply because of mandatory attendance (or if it’s part of your grade). As you correctly stated, these rules are ridiculous.

    I also agree that banning laptops is a step in the wrong direction. I’m a fan of the simplest solution, which is why I think the easiest way to allow laptops but reduce distraction related problems is this: if you use your laptop in class, sit in the back row. In some cases, people can’t read from the back row, and if these people genuinely want to type notes (not watch movies), then sit closer. If you’re watching hockey players fighting or dancing fish, sit in the back so nobody else has to see it.

    • danelow permalink*
      June 2, 2009 10:31 am

      Hi Lucas,

      Thank you for the comment. I agree that different students have different thresholds for distraction and you make some great points about it. The keystroke noise is definitely a tricky problem. I think the solution is to have the kids who want to actually be there, the ones that present in the class. Fixed seating and mandatory attendance is not doing anyone any favours (the students or the profs). I like your solution, and with enough of them we might actually figure out how to make this work instead of just saying, “No”.

      Thanks Lucas,

      Dane

  3. kcp permalink
    June 2, 2009 6:41 am

    I think it is reasonable to allow students access to laptops in the classroom; however, I this a set of guidelines to govern their use is necessary. As a student, I know first hand how distracting it can be when the person sitting in front of you decides to watch videos on youtube rather than engage with the lecture. I don’t think it is my ‘choice’ to be distracted as the human eye is naturally drawn to movement-a phsiologcial response I cannot control. Even if I ‘choose’ not to be distracted, I find myself concentrating on the task of not being distracted, which takes away from my experience of the lecture. I think that laptops, when used appropriately, are a fantastic learning tool but without some rules around classroom use, I don’t want them in my classes.

    • danelow permalink*
      June 2, 2009 10:15 am

      Hi kcp,

      Thank you for the comment. Perhaps the professor could compromise with monitoring software that syncs all of the laptops onto one screen that allows them to see if anyone is being distracted. Here is an example of one called SMART: http://www2.smarttech.com/st/en-US/Products/SynchronEyes+Classroom+Management+Software/

      Cheers,

      Dane

      • kcp permalink
        June 3, 2009 8:10 am

        Great find, Dane. I think the sofware looks promising. What makes me sad is that it is needed in a university setting. It probably wouldn’t be necessary without ridiculous rules like manditory attendance. Serious BCom fail.

  4. June 2, 2009 12:24 pm

    I have a thought to share…

    While I _completely_ respect an educational institution’s right to specify conduct in the classroom setting, there may be some things to consider in terms of delivering the most educational value to the student. I still think that regardless of my general views below, I believe that the individual educator responsible for the curriculum is the final word on this issue – class by class, professor by professor.

    I work in the internet industry, at a senior level. What’s “worse” is that the corner of the web industry in which I work is social media — so things like twitter and facebook are a big part of our business. We are all monitoring several communication channels throughout our day. We are typical of thousands of companies in the modern web industry.

    Here’s what I know to be true, certainly in my part of the web industry, and I believe in varying degrees across broader web industries, social or otherwise: people multitask like crazy. It is the norm, not the exception, to have all laptops open and participants monitoring several communication feeds while actively engaged in important meetings. It is very rare that we have to insist the laptops be closed in order to achieve sufficient focus on the meeting. The team members have adapted the ability to participate in meetings while monitoring (and participating in) web channels simultaneously.

    This is part of professional life today, in start-ups and in the social web industry at least. Whether it is a small project update or a Board of Directors meeting, laptops are open and attention is divided. Always. Only those who are incapable of _effectively_ multitasking run into trouble. The majority of team members multitask effectively and are able to contribute in multiple channels at once.

    If you don’t now how to do this, learn it quickly, or find another industry in which to develop your career path. It is that simple. You are fully expected to be able to multitask effectively.

    So what of our students? From my perspective, the skills the modern worker requires include effective multitasking. To ban laptops seems to remove the educational opportunity to teach people how to do this, and thereby prevent the opportunity to prepare them for this part of the business world.

    Professionals also need to know when to shut their laptops and when it is ok to leave them open. This has to do with the subject matter of the conversation, their role at the table, who is speaking, etc. Subtle yet critical skills to master.

    A last note is also in the vein of educational opportunity. If a student is responsible to be fully engaged in the lesson, and fails to do so because they cannot manage the distraction of a laptop of iPhone, it is their responsibility to adapt these skills (versus having educators at the post-secondary level enforce behavioral rules). Perhaps educators could assist them, at least by helping them understand that if you have your lappy open, you still are responsible to track and fully participate in the live session going on. You don’t get a second chance, and “no, I won’t repeat myself for those of you too distracted to pay attention. You missed the lesson. Learn to adapt multitasking skills or shut your computer — your choice.” The business world insists on personal responsibility — so too should the institution trying to prepare people for this world.

    My 2 cents, non-refundable.

  5. Adrian permalink
    June 3, 2009 12:18 pm

    I’m a firm supported in what is outlined in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Remove the grade system in school…then there would be no other reason to be there other than to learn. Those who are not to learn would eventually stop going. Schooling as a means to the end is a waste of everyone’s time.

    Otherwise, let people do what they want…if they drop out, whatever.

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