June 07, 2006

More laptops in lectures

Follow-up to Laptops in lectures from Autology: John Dale's blog

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 interested to read that some US institutions are giving lecturers the ability to disable internet access in the lecture theatre if they wish.

Since then there's been more debate on the subject, including an article in the Times Higher from June 2nd which rather disconcertingly quoted my previous blog entry. It's an odd sensation to see yourself quoted in print when you aren't expecting it. But much more entertainingly, they also reported that:–

New students at the Paul Merage School of Business at the University of California are told of the perils of digital distraction. Earlier this year, the campus installed a parabolic mirror at the back of a new classroom and plans to put in more. The mirror allows lecturers to keep tabs on students, but "it also makes the subtle statement that [lecturers] can see who's on email", says John Clarke, assistant dean and chief information officer.

I'm not sure why, but I find that faintly comic. If you don't want students to use laptops, you could ask them not to, or you could disable internet access if you're worried about web browsing (as the University of Virginia has done). But a giant mirror? What do lecturers do, call out people if they spot web sites they don't like? "You, near the back, reading the Onion: Out!".

In studies cited in the article, though, the problem does seem to be a real one: students allowed the use of laptops in a test group performed significantly less well in retention tests than students who weren't.

But not everyone sees the problem the same way: I was also struck by these quotes in the Chronicle of Higher Education (the US version of the THES) where this topic has been discussed on their forums:–

I figure it is my job to make what I do in the classroom more interesting and more pressing to the students than their friends' MySpace profiles. I tell students that laptops are fine for taking notes. Also that if they open a laptop, I am going to call on them, repeatedly, to summarize something I just said. This method works and is not very hard. And yet here we have people wishing for a mechanical control to make up for their not running their classroom sensibly?
Many of us are crackerjack lecturers— and that's what my ratings say, too. But the web, IM, and e–mail are like visual heroin — best left out of lecture.

And best of all:–

I make my students strip down to their skivvies before they enter my classroom. Inside, they have to take notes with lumps of charcoal on flat rocks (though in upper level classes I allow home made quill pens and birch bark). We speak to another in Old English. I mean, why should I have to change my pedagogy to keep up with information technology? What do you think I am, someone in the information business? Traditions so sacred as ours are not to be questioned.

- 5 comments by 2 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. Steven Carpenter

    Internet access and the perceived distraction it offers does seem to be the real issue here. It seems like a losing battle though, if you choose to make it one. Internet access is possible via GPRS, P2P communication via Bluetooth and/or ad–hoc connection is already commonplace and laptops will be replaced by smaller, more discrete devices.

    Ultimately it's the student's responsibility to be attentive during lectures. I don't perceive it any differently to doodling, sleeping or playing games on your mobile – the strongest argument for exclusion is whether it distracts others. I'd prefer to see it embraced in some way, like directing students to an online demonstration or resource during the lecture, or to explore how back–channeling might be used.

    08 Jun 2006, 10:00

  2. Robert O'Toole

    Howard Rheingold seems to be carrying out a rather brave experiment in his lectures:

    "I control one screen. While I lecture, you can use the iBooks to send comments and questions to the room’s AIM ID. At times, I will respond to them in real–time. At other times, I’ll respond at the end of the lecture. It’s possible for the class to cpllectively structure its own discussion in this manner, based on whatever thoughts the readings have stimulated, and in reaction to what I have to say. That it is possible is not a guarantee of success. If an experiment proves fruitful, we’ll continue. If it doesn’t, we’ll try another experiment. We’ll probably try a number of different experiments with the technological milieu this classroom offers. Is it possible to develop a fruitful pedagogy that includes multitasking? We’re going to try."

    No information yet on success/failure. I'll ask him what the result was.

    07 Jul 2006, 16:09

  3. Matt

    What on earth is the point of getting students to wirelessly send questions to the lecturer when they could just put their hand up and ask them out loud? (Although, having said that, I suppose this more traditional model also employs a form of wireless communication).

    08 Jul 2006, 10:43

  4. Robert O'Toole

    For a start:

    At times, I will respond to them in real–time. At other times, I’ll respond at the end of the lecture.

    …not sure how that would work in reality, but it is certainly not possible in a traditional lecture.

    10 Jul 2006, 11:53

  5. Matt

    Hmmm. How about, in a traditional lecture, saying something along the lines of "would you mind if I answered that at the end, rather than now?".

    10 Jul 2006, 19:33


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