Laptops in Classrooms - September 18, 2014 by zeldalegacy
My distracting laptop

My distracting laptop

I’ve updated this post after discussing the issue with my class. 

I can think of no journalism professors I admire more than Clay Shirky and Jay Rosen. But I (so far) disagree with them on the subject of whether to allow students to use laptops and mobile devices during class.

Clay has explained in a blog post why he bans computers from his classroom. Jay chimed in his agreement:

They both have notably more classroom experience than I do, and they might be right. I encourage you to read Clay’s full explanation and won’t try to summarize it here, but he cites research about how multitasking can interfere with learning.

My limited experience is different. I was very glad yesterday that a student had her laptop and multitasked in class.

In my syllabus, I tell students that they are welcome to use their laptops (or other devices) to take notes, look up links relating to class discussion or even to livetweet our discussions. However, I said, if I see them using Facebook or otherwise giving in to the distractions the device can present, I will ask them to shut their devices. But let’s be honest: I’m in front of the classroom and not very likely to play laptop cop often. I presume some of them are communicating with friends, etc. during class.

But yesterday, when I had cause during a class discussion to mention the famous Kevin Carter photo of a vulture stalking a child dying during the Ethiopian famine, a student found the photo in seconds so I could hold up her laptop and show the class. I hadn’t planned to mention the photo, or I might have had it ready to project on the classroom screen. I momentarily thought about finding it and showing it, but I had not even signed in on the classroom computer (I’ll probably do that before class now, even if I don’t have something planned to show) and didn’t want to delay the discussion while I signed on, waited for the projector to warm up and searched for the photo. But when I thought of the photo spontaneously as an example to make in a discussion we were having, showing the photo would have really helped make my point. The photo was shot in 1993, probably before most of my students were born. Many may never have seen it. And I was able to show it in class because a student took a few seconds to multitask on her laptop. I appreciated not just the example, but that she used her laptop to become more engaged in the class.

In another case, a student mentioned a video in class that related to another discussion. She emailed the video link to me during class (would she have remembered after class if I didn’t let her have her laptop open? I doubt it), and I posted it on the class blog.

In addition, I take better notes on a laptop than writing in a notebook, and I have decades’ experience taking notes on paper. I think and hope my students, who have spent much of their lives using electronic keyboards, will take better notes with their laptops than with pen and paper.

I value Clay’s and Jay’s experience and I’m sure that my students with their laptops open are facing other distractions and some are no doubt multitasking and missing some of what I say. But I regard it as my job to get and hold their attention. And I remember the distractions I could find simply by daydreaming when professors failed to hold my attention in pre-laptop days.

To a certain extent, I feel that adult students need to take responsibility for their own education. If they bring distractions into the classroom, then they are responsible for the damage from those distractions to the education they (and their parents) are paying for. And I welcome the better note-taking and the contributions from students who can find helpful material on their devices.

I especially respect Clay’s point about secondary distractions — students who are trying to pay attention being distracted by the material on the screens of their neighbors. I’m going to discuss this matter with my students tomorrow and I’ll let them vote on it (using their devices).

But, unless they embrace a laptop ban, students in my classes can use their laptops, tablets or cellphones and manage the distractions they bring. At least until I get as much experience and wisdom as Clay and Jay.

Update: My students were unanimous in wanting laptops. I invited anyone who’s bothered by distractions to text or email me and no one did. I remember two examples, including the one about the starvation photo, when students contributed to the class from relevant information they found on their laptops. I asked how many used their laptops either to pull up a link I was showing or to look for related information that they hadn’t shared with the class but had helped their understanding of the topics being discussed. Most hands in the classroom went up. One contrasted it with a class where she can’t use her laptop. She finds that handwriting is a distraction from what the professor is saying. She can’t keep up as well and she misses some things. I value what Clay and Jay (and others in comments here and on Facebook) have said. But for the Introduction to Mass Media course I’m teaching and for my teaching style and my students’ preferences, I think it’s best to allow use of laptops and other devices. Will let you know if I change my mind.

Update: Thanks to Steve Smith for sharing in the comments below a link to some research showing that students retain information better if they take notes in handwriting rather than on a laptop. I remain skeptical. I see some indication of bias both in the paraphrased explanations from the scholars and in the summary of the research by the Vox reporter. And I’m deeply skeptical of research that “proves” the researchers’ preconceived notions. The study, by controlling for the distractions of the Internet, also eliminated the opportunity of deeper engagement through relevant use of the Internet. For instance, the student who found the starvation photo probably has more retention of yesterday’s discussion than either students taking notes on laptops or taking notes by hand. But I will share this study with the students tomorrow and discuss these issues with them.

One more update: In my initial post, relying on my memory, I said the starvation photo was from Ethiopia. It was from Southern Sudan.

Filed under: Advice for a new professor, Journalism education Tagged: Clay Shirky, Jay Rosen, Journalism education, multitasking
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