Tuesday, March 09, 2010

About student distractions

From a Sojourners email:

This is like putting on every student's desk, when you walk into class, five different magazines, several television shows, some shopping opportunities and a phone, and saying, "Look, if your mind wanders, feel free to pick any of these up and go with it."

-- David Cole, Georgetown Law professor, on why he has banned laptops from his classes.

I so agree. I'm very glad I'm no longer in the academic classroom because I would want to ban them too and I'm sure not every teacher can get away with that.


  1. Hmm, I'm not sure I agree with this. There has been at least one study that showed that using Twitter (which academics love to hate) in the classroom actually improved student learning. The professor just channeled the Twitter energy into classroom interaction. Turns out people were much more willing to ask questions via Twitter. I think many students these days would much rather type their notes directly into the computer than write longhand, and now that we have the option of downloading textbooks onto laptops and netbooks rather than lugging them around, I think there are some definite advantages to having laptops in the classroom.

  2. Oh, I'm sure you're right, Alice. I'm betraying my age and generation here, I know. I really need to have eye contact with students to do my best and my limited experience with people having laptops in a classroom or meeting is that they're glued to the screen and don't look up much. But maybe that's not always the case.

  3. When I wuz teechun' at duh U, it wuz PhizzEdd stufff. No way 'n no how cood anee off dem pesky lappytop doohickeys maike it onta duh gym floor!

    Ok, sarcasm turned off now. But I never did have to deal with that crap as all my classes were in the gym.

    But as an instructor who always looked at the students and asked questions of them, I'd definitely NOT want kids typing into a laptop. Notes, or doodling or loveletters can't be helped, but with a laptop open with wifi (full disclosure: I taught before the internet was around) in all the classrooms nowadays? Not a chance in my classroom!

  4. I've banned computers in my classroom for the following reasons:
    1. The classroom is about learning to be socially responsible human beings--a place where one can engage with others in a respectful forum. Computers block this interaction.
    2. It's true, students do play around A LOT when the professor can't see the screen. I did when I had a computer in front of me.
    3. Studies show--SCIENTIFIC STUDIES in MRI machines--that "multitasking" is our generations grand illusion. We are simply not wired to handle five things (deeply) at once. A great documentary on this can be found on PBS's Frontline. Look up "Digital Nation."

    Actually, universities are quite open to letting professors ban computers in the classroom. And quite frankly, students KNOW that computers are a distraction...which is why I've NEVER had one complain about the ban. (Of course, I allow computers under the guidelines of the Americans with Disabilities Act).

  5. You might be interested in this article. I think the wisest course is to stop resisting the desire to use laptops in the classroom and figure out how to make it work to your advantage.

    Trying to handle multiple disparate tasks at once is unproductive, but given that we all multitask enough to think, take notes, and listen to a lecture at the same time, I bet laptops can be incorporated in ways that encourage student-teacher interaction and engagement with the material being taught.

  6. Yep, there are quite a few articles like this, but this type of writing is simply apocryphal and "this is what I think" argumentation. If you take a look at the work being done on student brains and learning (as referenced in "Digital Nation," you will see the cold, hard evidence suggests that learning simply isn't happening with the computer in the classroom.
    Taking notes by hand is a thousand-year tradition--and we might expect that this type of "tool use" in the classroom is hard-coded into our brains (at least those who are trained to go to University in the first place). And, I would argue that note-taking is not multi-tasking--it is the written engagement with the aural and visual stimili of classroom discussion. Facebook, Twitter, Hearts or Minesweeper are definitely discrete tasks that have nothing to do with the issues at hand. Moreover, the computer IS an important tool--it's essential to what we do in the humanities. So, I am not against computers--I am against their specific application in the lecture hall.


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