Laptops in the College Classroom – Boon or Distraction? Both!

This little gem from The Washington Post was on the front page of Tuesday’s edition.  It discusses how there’s been a bit of a backlash against the use of laptop computers in classrooms.  Unfortunately there’s not a systematic assessment of how many universities have now allowed the banning of laptops, but there certainly were enough universities in the Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia to attract the attention of a Post reporter.

While I have not taught in a situation where laptops were in the classroom, I have taken classes where that was the case, and I certainly understand the arguments made by professors that it’s way too easy to be doing something else during class.  Where I think that becomes a problem is when individual distraction sucks in other students.

But I’ve also been in positions where having not only the laptop, but the internet and email access that are perhaps the key distractions discussed in the piece, have been very helpful.  There’s also the courses I took (and taught) entirely online, which necessitated laptops.

Personally, I think there are plenty of ways to manage this technology for it to be effective up to, but not including, the point of distractions.  With electronic textbooks likely to increase in number, it would seem important to keep these potential tools in mind.  I’ve no doubt missed some options, feel free to weigh in with yours.

  • Engaging classroom presentations.  Note I didn’t use the word lecture, nor the slide presentation software that shall not be named.
  • Soliciting frequent feedback.  Classrooms have used clickers before to solicit answers to questions, to monitor class progress during a session.  Doing this via a laptop seems a natural.
  • Push pretty pictures and video to their laptops.  That way, they won’t go browsing for it themselves.
  • Manage the ability of students to use laptops during class.  Cut off that internet and e-mail if you must (certainly during tests).

Students could, of course, act like they’ve been there and at least feign a better effort at paying attention.  But I shan’t hold my breath at that one.  Really, managing this technology isn’t all that different from trying to manage other technologies.  We learn (hopefully) as we go along the good and less than good uses of the tech, figure out how to balance the competing interests involved in the use of that tech, and (if we’re thinking clearly) revisit our choices every so often.  Doesn’t matter if its university policy on laptop us or federal policy on export controls relating to foreign countries.

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