Laptops in the Classroom

I went to the Teaching and Learning Conference at the University of Windsor on Tuesday. It turns out that this conference is worth at least a couple of blog posts. First one up is about laptops in the classroom.

The session was called “Excellence in Teaching: Ten Useful Strategies for New and Experienced Faculty” and presented by Dr. Mary Stein, Associate Professor in Teacher Development & Education Studies at Oakland University. I had high expectations because I figure there is so much I need to learn and all of these people will know so much. It turns out that panning for gold as far as teaching strategies goes isn’t easy.

Some of the strategies were clearly true. The one that came up under a few headings was planning. Plan out the syllabus, plan assignments, plan assessment, plan your classes. Determine your expectations before the course begins and have it all in the syllabus. This makes good sense — except that a lot of the other sessions talked about interaction between faculty and students and the importance of active learning. There has to be balance between planning in infinite detail and student participation in learning. I think this gets easier with practice.

Another of Dr. Stein’s strategies was to give students sticky labels with their names from a pre-printed class list. In a conversation after the session, two of us were questioning whether or not this would violate the privacy policy at our university. While there’s something to be said for getting to know your students (and it’s important to note that this is much more likely to happen in a class of 20 or even 40 than it will in a class of 700 students) requiring name tags may be a privacy violation. Should students be required to share their names in the classroom or should they get to choose how and when they identify themselves in class?

Dr. Stein also ‘encourages’ her students to upload a photo to the learning management system and joked that during the first week of classes students will generally do what she asks (hinting to her power as “controller-of-the-grade”). Yikes.

One paper-marking strategy I never considered was only marking grammar and spelling errors only so far and then drawing a line where you’ve stopped. The point is to get students who need writing help connected with the resources that will help them learn to write better, instead of spending all of your own time correcting pages and pages of these types of errors. I like this.

The importance of routines was also mentioned and it reminds me a lot of parenting. Lots of parenting books talk about the importance of establishing routines. Clear routines have clear expectations. Clear expectations lead to better cooperation or at least a starting point for discussion when things aren’t working. It’s interesting to see overlap between parenting strategies and teaching strategies but I shouldn’t be surprised. I read Rahima Baldwin’s book, You are Your Child’s First Teacher when my daughter was a baby. Do educators see the parallels and take advantage of the resources written on parenting strategies?

The shocking bits of the session came in the “Learn from your colleagues” section. Someone asked about strategies for student questions and the presenter said she has specific time set aside for questions so that her teaching isn’t interrupted. Another said he has a “parking lot” on the chalkboard where students can write their questions, again so that teaching is not interrupted. I realize that sometimes students will find that their questions are answered if they just wait a minute in the lecture, but it was repeated several times during the conference that lectures are an inefficient way to teach and learn. Why discuss strategies for something that shouldn’t be happening? If the goal is student engagement, active learning, and learning-based pedagogy then students have to have more opportunity and encouragement to engage. If they have a question or comment, doesn’t that show they’re engaged? Isn’t that what everyone is after? If you tell students to park their question, it shows students that their questions don’t count and they’re going to disengage with the class. Moving to other teaching styles is the answer for dealing with this issue.

The ultimate shocker for me was the negativity towards laptops in the classroom. It was incredible — not one positive comment got through although maybe in the hands that didn’t get to comment there were others besides my own. People complained that students who appear to be taking notes are actually doing other things. (omg? really??) Students have always done other things in class besides take notes. Sleeping comes to mind as an example, so does talking, passing notes, drawing, doing other homework, and making grocery and chore lists. As with all things, there are advantages and disadvantages to laptops in the classroom. My favourite example comes from a computer science professor I know. He was teaching a programming class and was showing how to conserve resources in a program. Unaware to the prof, while he continued teaching, a student with a laptop connected to the university’s server and ran the program. Then they raised their hand and said, “I don’t see the results you predict.” Because this student had initiative and resources to do this, the class then went on to explore why it didn’t work according to the theory. This is learning, this is active, this is an opportunity to engage with the students and explore a real problem. Why take this away?

So maybe it isn’t the laptop in class that is the problem, it’s the Internet. Could it be that bringing the Internet into the classroom challenges who is the authority? Does this make some professors uncomfortable? The Web contains multiple viewpoints on every subject imaginable, and I’ve seen it where students look things up to challenge what the prof is saying. I’ve also seen students bring up examples that support the prof. It works both ways. It a women’s history class we were discussing some of the major womens’ organizations in North America over time. Someone asked if one of the groups still existed, prof didn’t know. Again, unknown to the prof, someone else surfed around, found the group’s site, gave an update from their front page, and shared the address with the class. Again: bonus because a student had their laptop in the classroom.

And it’s not just for students, professors can play too! If instructors had a messaging client open during the lecture (sounds off) students could message their questions, effectively dealing with the earlier concern of how to handle questions. There are positive applications of the technology!

So what are the real laptop issues?

  • Students surf.
  • Sometimes they surf because they’re bored. Answer here is engage them with your teaching. That was actually Dr. Stein’s strategy number one: Don’t be boring.
    Sometimes they surf material that isn’t rated E for Everyone. Maybe some guidelines are in order or maybe we need to accept that we can’t protect students from the big/bad/ugly. Students can spend some time at the beginning of the semester establishing a class code of conduct – it at least brings the topic into the arena of discussion. Students who would be offended are forewarned. Same advice we give to people who are offended by breastfeeding: don’t look. Small screens minimize this, and so do bad LCDs that have a limited viewing angle. Only the person close-up and directly in front can see.

  • Students don’t pay attention.
  • This isn’t a new phenomenon created by laptops. Laptops are just a scapegoat. The students who came at least thought there was something about your class that was worth getting out of bed. They could alternatively still be sleeping or hanging in the pub. They are in your class — it’s a start. They will get more out of being there and not giving it their full attention than they would if they weren’t there at all. And students today multitask with amazing proficiency. Even without Alt-Tab. I share that with as many people as I can cause it pains me to watch them click through tabs in the task bar.

    The answer here is definitely not invoking the hokey pokey as one attendee at the session suggested (not in those words but bad enough). It was more along the lines of “require a full body response to a question.” Like raising your hand to different heights to indicate level of agreement with a statement. This is a fine strategy, especially to engage kinesthetic learners, but only to get people to take their fingers of the keys? Missing the point.

    And requiring students to put away laptops/close lids during discussion? Only if you’re also taking away pens, pencils, and paper from all the students.

So what about having laptop section in the classroom? Near the outlets for those who need power. If you don’t want to see the multitasking going on, you don’t look. If the typing bothers you you sit on the other side of the room. It’s true that sometimes the keys are loud. This can be as annoying as screeching chalk. Solution? Quieter keypads and getting over it. Or maybe wearing an ipod is the answer. ;)

1 comment:

  1. Jacqui583, 10. May 2007, 18:07

    What an interesting discussion. Personal computers weren’t even on the landscape when I originally went to school, and the first ones I learned to work with were dedicated word processors.

    My 18yo DD brings hers to school and since I can type faster than I can write and since I keep missing important parts of the lecture notes I started bringing mine. Unfortunately both times something caused me to lose information (note to self; save every 5 minutes!) and I find my own keyboard loud and distracting!

    I don’t surf during class, but then I’m only taking one class at a time, I’m there because I want to be and am genuinely interested in the topic, and I have plenty of surf time elsewhere in my life. But I do worry that I’m distracting others.


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