May 07, 2006

Laptops in lectures

Writing about web page

I was interested to read this article about more lecturers (in the US) deciding to ban student use of laptops during lectures. The argument is simple enough: laptops, at best, turn students into stenographers; at worst, students are playing online poker, IMing their friends, emailing, blogging, anything except engaging with the lecture itself.

At the University of Pennsylvania, law professor Charles Mooney banned laptops from his classes two years ago. Around that time, said Mooney, he was serving as an expert witness in a lawsuit. During a break in his deposition, he recalled asking the stenographer if she found the case interesting. She replied that she didn't remember anything she had taken down, Mooney said. "I thought, 'That's what my students are doing,'".

To me the interesting question is what laptops in lectures are actually good for. Taking notes faster, on the basis that most people nowadays can type faster than they can write? Getting notes in electronic form straightaway rather than having to copy–type them later, so that they can be more effectively searched and cross–referenced? Easier inter–mingling of the lecturer's handout materials with the student's own notes (assuming that the handout is already on the laptop when the lecture takes place)?

I notice that none of these uses require an internet connection. It's possible in principle, I suppose, that a wifi–equipped laptop could be useful in allowing the student to look up additional content relating to the lecture via Google or whatever. But I bet nobody actually does this effectively; it would be too difficult to multi–task the searching, the listening and the note–taking. So if internet–equipped laptops in lectures serve no useful purpose, then rather than penalising students who find laptops a better way to take notes, would it be a better strategy just not to provide wired/wireless networking in lecture theatres?

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  1. Well no, because you mentioned that its easier to cross–reference / inter–mingle extra notes with those made by the lecturer assuming there is a copy of them on the laptop. A lot of the notes given in lectures are posted on departmental pages – ie you need internet access to get to them.

    However, I personally dont take my laptop into lectures so a ban on them wouldn't bother me too much. Having said that though, it is very useful to have wi/fi access in lecture theatres for presentations (eg if a representative from a company is visiting campus to give a career talk and they need to access web pages in their presentation), or sometimes the lecturer demonstrates something through the net etc.

    07 May 2006, 18:09

  2. Robert O'Toole

    Would anyone really type notes on a laptop in a lecture? Imagine the noise from clattering keys. How embarrasing. Of course if wifi is available then there is a use for them that doesn't involve typing. I have myself used a Tablet PC in lectures, not as a note taking device, but to give me access to the notes and diagrams that I have already created – especially the many diagrams. I did occasionaly modify one of my MindManager concept maps. But more often I used the Tablet to allow me to link the lecture to my own thesis. This then helped me to form questions to ask of the lecturer. This useage raises a significant point. Some lectures are in fact more like seminars (and vice versa). Students are expected to ask questions and raise points. We should not assume that lectures are merely about the transmission of content. Laptops may then become much more useful.

    07 May 2006, 21:35

  3. It would be near impossible to type any of our engineering notes on a computer in that time unless one was fluent in LaTeX.

    Despite that I still see idiots with laptops out not doing very much.

    07 May 2006, 23:07

  4. Robert O'Toole

    How about if it were possible for a lecturer to hand over control of the projector to a student's laptop? The student could then show a diagram or do a demonstration. We've already tried out some of the new wireless projectors. Although they aren't quite perfect yet, I think that in the near future this will be possible.

    Again it depends upon the type of lecture. In the aesthetics lectures that I went to, it would have been really useful for me to project one of my diagrams or an artwork onto the screen in answering a question. In those lectures it was quite common for a student to do the talking for a few minutes to develop a question or an argument.

    08 May 2006, 09:46

  5. Matthew Jones

    In any CS lecture there will be at least a dozen laptops on desks. Of them, at most 2 will be used for note taking. This is from personal experience and it always hlped being sat towards the back in L3. In my three years I saw people playing (not an exhaustive list, its early):

    Puzzle bobble, minesweeper, poker, asteriods clone, some sort of FPS (more than one type in the same lecture)...

    The biggest cheek was one guy last year who actually sat at the front so he could plug his laptop in, then proceeded to play games on it and chat on IRC. Seriously, just stay at home!

    08 May 2006, 10:02

  6. Robert O'Toole

    I suppose that wasn't a particularly interactive lecture then? I'd never try that in a philosophy lecture. You would be the first to get picked on to answer a question about reverse polish notation (or some other hideous topic).

    08 May 2006, 11:25

  7. Ian Burnip

    i think laptops work. they allow clear notes to be taken, they allow backup copies to be created.

    As for games etc, in my opinion, if the student decides to do this, then it is their time they are wasting, and therefore, their perogative.

    08 May 2006, 13:38

  8. John Dale

    The trouble is that students wasting time with laptops aren't just affecting themselves; it can be distracting for others around them and for the lecturer too. Students are often surprised, in my experience, to hear just how aware the lecturer is, even in a big lecture theatre, of students who are talking, using a phone or a notebook, reading the paper, etc. It stands out more than you might think.

    08 May 2006, 13:43

  9. John Dale

    A lot of the notes given in lectures are posted on departmental pages – ie you need internet access to get to them.

    Well yes, but not necessarily during the lecture. You could download them beforehand.

    if a representative from a company is visiting campus to give a career talk and they need to access web pages in their presentation

    Sure. I think the person doing the lecture or the presentation would reasonably expect to have internet access either through a network connection at the lectern, or through wifi (private to the lectern, perhaps). My hypothesis was that the network might be unnecessary or even unhelpful to people listening to the lecture, not to the person giving it.

    08 May 2006, 13:48

  10. "To me the interesting question is what laptops in lectures are actually good for."

    When you consider how low lecture attendance is, that most people learn pretty much the entire course from the notes that are given out by lecturers anyway, and that people who do turn up are usually disinterested and frequently fall asleep, isn't the intelligent question "What are lectures actually good for"? Because given the number of people I know who get damned good marks without even going to them, it's a valid question in my eyes.

    08 May 2006, 13:59

  11. You're not cool if you don't make notes on a vintage typewriter. Laptops are for emos.

    Completely agree about laptops in lectures. They shouldn't be there and ideally lectures shouldn't be about making exhaustive notes. Two sides of A4 at the very most per lecture. Anything else and you're not absorbing the material.

    Unless you use a vintage typewriter. If you bring a 1904 Hammond No. 12 into a lecture you can do whatever the hell you want, frankly.

    08 May 2006, 14:06

  12. To be fair though the number of handwriters whose lecture handouts consist of elaborate doodles rather than extra notes/amazing insights is probbly the same ratio as those who are MSNing:those who are taking notes.

    08 May 2006, 16:14

  13. … We're supposed to take notes in lectures now?

    In CS lectures there are a couple of people who definately do use their laptops dilligently to work, they can look into background stuff as the lecture progresses, type quicker and more legibly than they could write etc. However, the vast majority just play games, which can be kinda distracting if you're two rows behind them and its a really dull topic.

    There seem to be far more people with laptops in CS lectures than the Business Studie variety, which to me is telling; no one knows how to waste time using a computer better than CS students.

    I still think lectures are worthwhile when you have complex material being covered by an expert who explains the concepts clearly. Attendance by about lecture 4 of a module is probably a good indicator of how close they actually get to this ideal in any given module…

    08 May 2006, 17:16

  14. nick

    I am really against laptops in Lectures. I sat through a (boring) lecture series a couple of terms ago. From the back row I could see that most students were catching up on e–mails, MSN'ing and the like. Virtually no–one was engaged with the lecture.

    08 May 2006, 18:35

  15. But I think what Holly says is what this whole issue is about. If students are going to mess about – be it by doodling, reading the paper, playing cards (yes i saw that happen in one of my lectures before), or by playing computer games, MSNing or emailing – they are going to mess about.

    So I think that its worth allowing laptops to be brought into lectures for those who do actually use them for academic purposes, because at the end of the day its the student's own loss if they are messing about.

    08 May 2006, 18:45

  16. ""To me the interesting question is what laptops in lectures are actually good for."

    When you consider how low lecture attendance is, that most people learn pretty much the entire course from the notes that are given out by lecturers anyway, and that people who do turn up are usually disinterested and frequently fall asleep, isn't the intelligent question "What are lectures actually good for"? Because given the number of people I know who get damned good marks without even going to them, it's a valid question in my eyes."

    I know what you mean. The second year engineers are wondering if we got given the boring, banal and uninteresting lecturers on purpose, or if someone, somewhere, actually believes they can teach.

    However, as one of those really irritating people who insists on attending lectures (don't ask me why, it's habit now) I reckon people playing Sonic the Hedgehog on their laptops is really distracting. And the lecture is usually so mind–numbingly, skull–crushingly dull that paying attention is hard enough anyway.

    Don't ban laptops, then: ban lecturers who, to all intents and purposes, can't lecture.

    08 May 2006, 19:04

  17. I don't think it's fair on the lecturer to turn up and then piss about through the entire lecture.

    But yes, it's even more wrong to be a shit lecturer in the first place.

    09 May 2006, 07:43

  18. Robert O'Toole

    Does this debate have a science faculty leaning? Hence the assumption that lectures are just about the lecturer talking for an hour or two uninterupted. The arts faculty, and philosophy, are often quite different.

    09 May 2006, 09:17

  19. Robert O'Toole

    I suspect that most of the commentors are also undergrads, so this is not the whole story.

    09 May 2006, 09:18

  20. Victoria

    Banning laptops?

    I've sat and taken many notes during a lecture without actually paying attention or learning everything. Having a laptop would atleast mean these notes were legible. I assume this particular lecturer will hire security to look over every student's shoulder to make sure they are writing the correct notes? Possibly he will suddenly stop every few minutes, march over to an unsuspecting student and yell "LEARN!" in his face. Better still, to make sure students only take notes and pay attention in lecctures, strapping them to the chairs, fixing their arms to a robotic arm and taping their eyes open Clockwork Orange style may help.

    This summer I will get a laptop with a touch screen and software that will allow me to use it as a pad of paper. I will use it in lectures, should I ever have any more. Laptops are the best choice for certain students, for others who type better then they write, or those who have to make constant revisions to their lectures because certain lecturers cannot get it right first time. Or second. If you are distracted by a laptop in a lecture, ask yourself why are letting yourself be distracted. Did they have the sound on? Probably not– few people are that dim. Were you scanning the rows because you were distracted anyway? And those who complained about laptops behind you– where were you looking?

    This ban is the result of the insecurities of a lecturer who generalised the experience of a stenographer who has to record multiple cases day in day out with a student who is required to learn the material he/she is recording and thus has a vested interest. He thinks that by forcing his students to take paper notes, he'll make his course more interesting. But most likely start a revival in hangman.

    09 May 2006, 09:53

  21. I'm an arts student and there's never any laptops in my lectures, or maybe the odd one every other month, not enough to mention. People tend to pay attention in Classics, or else sleep, or doodle if the lecture is dull or incomprehensible. Once, last year I went to a maths/science lecture on Intro To Astronomy I think it was, just for fun! But I was shocked at the rudeness of students, there were people talking, chatting, not quietly, eating things, not paying attention. Why bother attending? Its not as though there was even an attendance sheet (as we have in Classics) and the lecture notes were so comprehensive that it didn't seem to me to be necessary to attend in person. This, I think is another different between arts and sciences , in my lectures hand–outs are provided to illuminate a crucial piece of information or as a general outline, but the lecturer does not just read them off the sheet, he/she explains and expounds on each point. Then there tends to be discussion, amid or at teh end of teh lecture, depending on the topic and stuff.

    09 May 2006, 14:15

  22. Robert Meerman

    As a Computer Scientist, there has never been a shortage of laptops in my lectures – sadly it's true that so many of my peers are incredibly rude and disinterested in the lectures, but I don't feel that's just from those with laptops! And I won't pretend that those with laptops don't use them to mess around in more sophisticated ways than is possible with pen and paper. However, I for one found that a laptop with the right software on it was immensly useful!

    As an EU student, my base is abroad and I truly dislike paper because it's heavy and that means I don't carry my notes from previous lectures with me, and more dramatically I don't have my notes from previous years, as they get put into storage in some inaccessible garage over summer and I never get around to picking them out.

    So digital notes are fantastic and I try to avoid paper handouts – using a laptop I was able to annotate even the online notes – was able to prove things to myself during lectures (although I admit this may be the advantage of doing a computer–related course), always had legible notes with proper cross–referencing and was always able to lookup things from previous lectures / make corrections the lecturer advised for the last lecture.

    In fact I used this so much I used to take a graphics drawing tablet (a pad with a magnetic pen) with me for the diagrams; and was asked by multiple peers for a copy of my neat, legible, searchable, portable notes. I now have a Tablet PC – even an evangelist of e–paper such as myself was amazed by how much simpler it makes things.

    Searchable notes from any PC with internet–access (thanks to having a website)? I won't be going back to paper!

    If you want to see the sort of notes I took before I had a tablet PC, feel free to checkout my Digital Signal Processing notes which were the first notes I tried to do paperless.

    09 May 2006, 15:07

  23. John Dale

    When you consider how low lecture attendance is, that most people learn pretty much the entire course from the notes that are given out by lecturers anyway, and that people who do turn up are usually disinterested and frequently fall asleep, isn't the intelligent question "What are lectures actually good for"?

    We seem to have wandered off the question of whether banning laptops or wifi or both is a good idea. But the question of whether lectures are any good as a mode of teaching is just as interesting. I wonder, when you say "most people" whether you mean most of the people you know personally, most of the students doing your course, or most students at the university. It's certainly not the case that most students don't attend any lectures; I read a survey (from Alt–C, I think, though I can't find the reference on my shelves right now) which said that while it varies significantly from department to department, on average over 95% of students attend at least one lecture per module they do, and over 70% attend more than two thirds of the lectures in each module. (Attendance in the science faculty is noticeably poorer than in arts or social studies.)

    Not all lecturers are as good as the very best ones, of course, and I'm sure there are cases where it's the presentational style of the lecturer which makes students decide to stop attending. So are we saying that all lectures are perhaps not be good for anything, or just dull, reading–in–a–monotone lectures? If you could pay reduced fees for a version of your course where there were no lectures, just handouts, a library and tutorials, would you take that option?

    My own theory is that part of the purpose of lectures isn't just the content that's delivered in them; for some students they provide a kind of structure to the working day. In the same way that I get up because I have to come to work or I don't get paid, going to lectures provides a kind of framework for a working routine. Perhaps that's why even students with no apparent interest in the lecture content still turn up.

    09 May 2006, 15:22

  24. I agree that arts lectures are quite different – more interaction, and the students are more engaged on the whole. Hardly anyone brought in laptops, and like Robert said, if you did, you'd be almost asking to have some hideously difficult question directed at you! Even if the students in my lectures weren't interested, they wouldn't have sat there chatting or playing games on a laptop. Also, our lectures were actually interesting (and no I'm far from being a geek…) – maybe because the lecturers themselves were genuinely passionate about their subject.

    09 May 2006, 15:29

  25. Wow.

    This just reminded me of a news story from around 5 years ago.

    Things really do move in circles

    09 May 2006, 16:05

  26. Dean, I wonder if that was the impetus for the student purchase scheme with IBM or whether it existed previously.

    I would hate to take a module, let alone a whole degree without any lectures, in a way that was the most difficult thing about my dissertation – the lack of regular contact with both lecturers and your peers to monitor progress. And I totally agree that lectures give a framework to the day – I'd never come into uni early in the mornign if it weren't for 10am lectures!

    09 May 2006, 20:15

  27. naz

    12 Holly: I doodle all the time as well. And I will play something on the laptop if the lecturer couldn't see my screen.
    23 JD: I attended almost all my BSc Info & Comm lectures 'cause it was something to do, and I'd hang out later.
    To each his own, I guess. Bring a laptop if you want to.

    10 May 2006, 14:51

  28. I very supprised that the lecturer allows laptops in lectures at all. I would have tought that the noise of the keyboards would have been enough to get them banned.

    12 May 2006, 14:35

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  1. More laptops in lectures

    A month ago, I wrote about the use of laptops in lectures, prompted by reports of American academics who have decided to ban them. I wondered whether the problem was really the laptop, or the internet access that often goes along with it, and I've been in…

    Autology: John Dale's blog - 07 Jun 2006, 21:22

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