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.