Laptops in Class: Good or Evil?
(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.
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?