One laptop per C-student

Come on, you know you want to

An article on Slate about the growing backlash against laptops in the classroom:

The trend of laptop-banning seems strongest at law schools, where discussions and understanding the material are vital to getting past the dreaded first year. Georgetown University Law Center professor David Cole bans laptops, as does University of Memphis Law School professor June Entman. George Mason Law professor Michael Krauss has been banning laptops for five or six years now.

The way his first-year law-school classes are taught, Krauss said, is by asking questions for the students to answer in discussion. Distractions and the Internet aren’t Krauss’ concern in banning laptops; the reason for the ban is that laptops have “become a substitute for thinking.” The material in a law class requires a lot of thought to help understand concepts, and students who type verbatim what is said in class into their notes aren’t giving themselves any time to absorb and analyze.

I was still an undergraduate at Clemson University,  when the idea of laptop-enabled classrooms was being introduced. I could never quite understand how they could really help with the material – they were being pushed first in math and engineering programmes, where usually a pencil is more friendly than a keyboard. I got the required laptop, but graduated before the university got around to enabling wi-fi access in most of its classrooms.

Today, laptops are an everyday accessory in American lectures. Some students use them for typing notes, some for fact-checking their professors (my father, who teaches political science, now has his assertions constantly tested by Google), but many use them as an excuse to goof off during class. These distractions might be reducing performance:

At the University of Colorado-Boulder, Professor Diane Sieber also knew her students weren’t all paying attention in class. She carried out a very unscientific study simply by comparing the grades of students who used laptops in class with those of the students who didn’t. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, Sieber privately informed the students after their first exam that they scored lower by 11 percent than their counterparts without laptops.

Of course, there are selection problems here – students that decide to bring laptops to class are probably different types of people than those who choose to constrain themselves with pen and paper – but they are interesting nonetheless. A related (but not equivalent) study in Romania found that computer recipients spent more time playing computer games, but not learning.

A child of the internet revolution, I’m one of the first to embrace any advances in technology that brings me closer to living in a Gibson-esque dreamworld. I remember being excited at the prospect of upgrading my 14.4 kbs modem to a 28.8, or the creation of my first Geocities page, or signing up to Facebook back when it was being rolled out on a university-by-university only basis!

However, as I’ve gotten older I’ve begun realise just how massively debilitating the effects of  internet access are on one’s attention span. Facebook, twitter, wikipedia, e-mail and blogging creates a multiplicity of microincentives for the brain to constantly divide its attention (I’ve done a few dozen other things while writing this blog post).

Programmes like One Laptop Per Child tend to be run by technophiles (like me) who consider greater access to the web to be one step closer to nirvana. When we consider bringing such technology into the classrooms, especially in developing countries, we need need to carefully consider that the net effects on basic learning might be negative. Trying to keep up in honors advanced calculus with pencil and paper might have given me hand cramps, but at least I was paying attention.

5 thoughts on “One laptop per C-student

  1. Roving Bandit

    April 23, 2010 at 3:24pm

    It would presumably be pretty easy to do a randomised trial of giving students a laptop pass or not. We should call some professors.

  2. Matt

    April 23, 2010 at 3:38pm

    And then use it as an instrument for the action of bringing it to the classroom?

  3. Nick Sauers

    April 28, 2010 at 5:38am

    My experiences as a teacher, principal, and Ph.D. student have formed my opinion about the topic. I truly do not believe the medium, technology, is the issue. The issue seems to be the teaching. Here is a post I wrote a while back about this topic.

    Ban Boredom not Laptops

    On Monday Corey Jacobson of the GW Hatchet published an article entitled Banning Laptops does not Ban Boredom. At approximately the same time I read Corey’s article, I received an email with some protocols for a doctoral seminar that I will be attending this weekend. One of the protocols was, “Please refrain from using any electronic devices (laptops, cell phones, blackberry, etc.) during this seminar.” Although it does appear that much of the class will center around discussion, I still question an outright ban on technology.

    This dilemma is similar to one that many educators face as they make a move to one to one. I have heard so many individuals share concerns about the distractions that students will face with laptops in front of them. Because of these concerns, I routinely ask students, teachers, and administrators what their experiences have been. All of the administrators and teachers I have spoken with have said that they have seen increased student engagement and less discipline problems after implementing a one to one program.

    Student perspectives have possibly been the most insightful to me. The basic response is that students who wouldn’t be paying a attention before the laptops wouldn’t be paying attention just because of the laptops. So what was the hook that kept students’ attention? Engaging lessons that actively involved students in their learning!

    I can say that as a doctoral student I will routinely have five to seven various tabs open on my computer during a lesson. Does that mean that I’m off task? No! I would argue that not only am I on task, but I am more engaged than many students in my class. I will routinely look up vocabulary on Wikipedia (no it is not evil), check assignments on the Blackboard Learning System, take notes on-line, and navigate to sites that deal directly with the topic.

    I must also confess that there are times when I get off task with my computer. Hmmm……maybe that isn’t so different than when I don’t have my computer. Although I don’t yet have the research to support this, my research hypothesis goes something like this. When teaching is really really bad, I am off task more often than when teaching is good. It doesn’t matter if I have a laptop, a piece of paper, or absolutely nothing. My brain is quite capable of wandering without the help of any technology.

    So how can teachers manage a classroom with laptops?

    As a classroom teacher, I had a similar management issue with a different type of technology. That piece of technology was a…….(drum roll)…..pencil. At various times in my teaching career I had students who would pass notes, doodle, and even poke one another with the pencil. I made the decision to not ban the use of pencils in my class, but I did routinely share expectations for being in my class.

    Classroom management with laptops is not much different. The expert teachers I have visited have some pretty common sense approaches to making sure students are using technology appropriately. Teachers tell students to “close their lids” if there is no need for the laptops. They also ask students to take their hands off their keyboards if students aren’t expected to be working on their computer.

    I do not believe that even in a one to one setting, laptops should be used at all times. There are times when a laptop is simply a distraction to what is happening. Teachers need to recognize those times and act accordingly. On the other hand, there are times when laptops enhance learning in ways that cannot be done without the laptop. The art of teaching is knowing when and how to best use the technology to actively engage students in their learning.

    Nick Sauers

  4. Matt

    April 28, 2010 at 5:46pm

    Nick – thanks for the extremely thoughtful reply. I agree with you that laptops are sometimes a symptom, not the cause of the problem (and think some of your suggestions – letting the teacher have more control over how and when they get used, are the answer). Sadly, many lecturers are either unwilling or, more often, unable to curb the problem.

    I use lots of tech every day, but it was introduced slowly through my development (because it was still being invented!) – I don’t think we can take our current experience with using tech and say “only good things can come from having access to this at an early age,” which is the starting point for OLPC.

  5. Kimberly

    May 15, 2010 at 2:49pm

    5 years ago (when I was in university in Canada) I was a no-laptop-in-class-student. Mine was pretty heavy, power sockets were limited and I thought I paid better attention with a pen and paper.

    But that didn’t solve the problem – I found I got distracted really easily by the other students with screens, sitting in front of me. I don’t care much if someone’s MSNing or playing solitaire during the lecture…but try sitting behind someone playing a video game and trying to focus on the lecture!

    Anyway, just a thought.

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