Monday, March 16, 2009

Laptops in Class: A Bad Idea?

Here are a few links to articles regarding the use of laptops in college classrooms. I came across this series of articles first via an Ars Technica article, "In-class laptop use sparks backlash, possibly lower grades."

Another article referenced is "Profs grapple with laptop rules as CU campus goes wireless," in the Boulder Daily Camera.

The final article, "Students Stop Surfing After Being Shown How In-Class Laptop Use Lowers Test Scores," comes via the Chronicle of Higher Education. This article reports:

"Professors increasingly frustrated by students who use laptops for non-class activities -- like updating their Facebook pages -- may be heartened by news from the University of Colorado at Boulder. A professor there has found that educating students about the negative effect that frivolous laptop use has on their performance reduces class time spent going walkabout on the Web ... But other instructors find bans hard to enforce, and also find that Web access can enrich classroom discussions."

Students who apparently actually want to learn something also complain of other students watching movies in class, shopping, playing games, or updating their social networking sites, finding such activities distracting.

The Daily Camera piece notes, "an emerging trend among college professors is to let students regulate the use of technology through social norms, and to try and impart on this generation that multi-tasking clouds the brain."

Since laptops are so powerful and can do so much, a case can be made that they are actually too distracting, keeping students diverted or otherwise not as intent on listening to the teacher/professor. But laptops are quite handy for note-taking purposes.

What do you think? Are laptops useful in the classroom or not? Should educators have the final say as to whether or not to allow certain technology in the classroom?

By the way, can anyone guess what model of "laptop"/portable computer is shown in the image above? They were quite popular for a time.

Addendum: After posting this, I came across another relevant article today. This one is about Maine looking to get MacBooks (laptops) for every middle school through high school student in the state. If college students have a hard time handling this technology in the classroom, why do people think this is a good idea at the middle school and high school levels?


Kevin Winters said...

While laptop regulation may be useful, I think a more proactive approach would be to have attention training as an integral part of every education, like shamatha (concentration) meditation techniques. This would attack the roots of inattention rather than simply strike at a few of the more explicit branches.

Robert Velarde said...

Thanks for the comment, Kevin. How 'bout guided imagery visualization, TM, and Christian prayer while they're at it? Not to be flippant, but I would argue that concentration techniques could be taught without involving religion such as Tibetan Buddhism and what not. Have them read How to Speak, How to Listen, for instance.

Doug Groothuis said...


I like the ancient computer you put up. It reminds me of my KayPro IV, on which I wrote several books. Technically, it was a "portable."

Here is the policy I started putting on my syllabi at Denver Seminary this term. I do not have this policy for the classes I teach at Metro State, but those students don't usually have laptops.

No laptops are allowed in the classroom. While many students will use laptops responsibly, sadly my experience shows that many will not use them wisely, and will, instead, use them to surf the Internet—checking emails, EHarmony account, trading stocks, even watching films. For this reason, I am banning them from the classroom. The classroom needs to be sacred zone for knowledge and inspiration. Knowledge needs students and students need knowledge. We need to breathe ideas together without the distraction of alien mediation (cell phones, laptops, blackberries, and so on). Many students disappear behind the screens.

Please print out the class notes for the day (given through the web page by email) and be ready to take notes and discuss the material face-to-face, voice-to-voice, soul-to-soul. Please give me—better, offer up before God—the class time each week for discussion, debate, dialogue, and prayer. Unplug for three hours a week.

Caleb Woodbridge said...

I had a netbook, a cheap mini laptop no bigger or heavier than many hardback books, and I've occasionally used it for taking notes in lectures, and used it a lot for writing on the move.

But it is very easy to get distracted with wifi access widely available, plus all the other things I keep on the computer like photos and mp3s and various software (though I removed all the games). When I went into a cafe to write, I could easily waste an hour in an afternoon on various distractions.

Anyway, I'm currently on an enforced break from my netbook, since it was stolen a few days ago. I've had to go back to good old fashioned pen and paper, and I now really appreciate the simplicity of it - no worrying about battery life, no distractions, just a blank sheet to write stuff on. I'll probably replace my netbook fairly soon, but I intend to be rather more sparing in how much I use it.

Robert Velarde said...

Kevin, I'm not interested in turning this comment area into a debate on shamatha meditation, so I have not posted your follow-up comments along these lines. You've made your suggestion and I have offered another resource to help students learn to concentrate/listen.

Doug, the computer pictured is an Osborne I, released in 1981. They were very successful for a time and predated the KayPro series. Though promoted as portable, at nearly 25 pounds they were more "luggable" in reality. Alas, Osborne went bankrupt just a couple of years later. Thanks for posting your laptop guidelines for your classes. I appreciate the ability to search through my class notes via computer for future reference. Taking notes by hand would require me to type them in again -- something I probably would not do, but I imagine your method results in far better attention spans in your classes.

Caleb, thanks for the comments. Yes, even netbooks do quite a lot. I have an old Windows CE device that I often use when doing library research. The device has nearly a full size keyboard, but no WiFi and is very basic (I think it is a NEC MobilePro). The key, I suppose, is trying to maintain discipline when working on a computer. This, of course, is not new to the computer age. Writers and thinkers throughout the ages had to battle different kinds of distractions.

starkej2 said...

It should be up to the student whether or not they can have a laptop in class. Students who know they will be distracted by the computers shouldn't bring them, and those who think they can use it for academic reasons should be allowed to bring one to class if they please. People should be allowed to have laptops in class if they want to as long as it isn't distracting others. After all, it is their education and they are paying for it. Banning computers would only make unattentive students find something else to distract them...