Laptop Policy?

I’m not sure I agree with the writer from the New York Times who suggested that technology is turning all of us into Zombies, but I saw a few of the living dead in my classes last semester.

Let me emphasize a few.  Most of my students were lively and engaged; most participated in productively and imaginatively.  A few, however, spent every class period staring at their computer screens.    They barely even lifted their heads.  They didn’t seem to bother the other students (the infamous “cone of distraction” that some lecturers have noticed) because they generally sat in the back or along the side and tilted their screens so they were not visible to others.  Their midterm papers, however, showed no evidence whatsoever of familiarity with the material in spite of regular attendance. The papers did, interestingly, suggest that they were pretty decent students overall: they could write complete sentences, organize a paragraph, and interpret a piece of writing.  They utterly lacked, however, any of the contextual coordinates that classroom discussion so painstakingly provides, and thus made outrageous errors in their reading.

So you’re probably thinking: why do you let them bring laptops to class? Just solve the problem by banning the laptops.

Of course I considered this and have done it past semesters, but I’m not convinced that this is the best solution.  As mentioned, the zombie cohort was tiny; two to three students per class at most.  Many other students, by contrast, used their laptops to take notes.  It’s hard to object to this. Like these students, I find note-taking on a keyboard much easier and digital storage more congenial than the paper kind.  Further, in these challenging economic times, some students download the reading material instead of buying the books: it’s pretty easy to find a digital version of Robinson Crusoe or Gulliver’s Travels.

I was able to bring one of these zombies back into the world of the living.  I wrote to each of them that I thought their web-surfing was undermining their work.  One stopped coming to class. One subsequently looked up a few times. One recognized the truth of this analysis, went cold turkey, and wrote a much-improved final paper.  (So maybe when zombies learn to think for themselves they will no longer be condemned to endlessly demand other people’s brains.)

There has been much discussion in higher ed reporting about whether or not to allow laptops in the classroom, but it seems to me that we need a more subtle negotiation than simply being ‘for’ or ‘against’ it.  An on/off switch for the wireless internet would be great, but my classroom doesn’t have one.   I think overall that technology has improved my classes and I know that students have always found ways to distract themselves.  It might not even be fair to call them zombies: they could be doing engaged intellectual work on their laptops.  The problem is that they are doing it while I am trying to explain the difference between Whigs and Tories, so they end up not even knowing what they don’t know but at the same time have the illusion that they are learning the material because, after all, they came to class.  So as I reflect on what kinds of policies to include for next semester, I wonder how others have addressed this issue.


16 responses to “Laptop Policy?

  1. Laura Rosenthal

    One additional point about why I find it hard to ban laptops: since I ask them to do so much work online (a blog, wiki-building, research on ECCO, etc.), it feels wrong to ban their computers from the class.

  2. I have a no-laptop policy, but I do deliberately make exceptions (which they are told about in advance) so that they can use the internet, access the blog, or create documents for group activities.

    My policy used to be simply a knee-jerk Luddite reaction, but then last summer I took an undergraduate class myself (long story) and discovered how little self-control I had when I had the option of noodling around online while ostensibly taking notes on a lecture. Of course, part of the reason I was noodling around online was that there was little incentive not to–the class just wasn’t that hard, and there was absolutely no “active learning” expected, just the passive absorption of information. The fact that I was using 3/4 of my brain to do something other than pay attention to the lecture (along with many–but not all–of the other students) took nothing away from my ability to learn the material.

    It was, structurally, very different from the courses I teach (which, among other things, have much smaller numbers)–but that only reinforced my conviction that I had a duty to my students to ban laptops.

    I had not realized just how much undergraduate education takes this dumbed-down, brain-cell-destroying, passive form. Courses in the humanities–courses that stress discussion, debate, independent research and thinking, the first-hand engagement with difficult texts and are small enough to encourage those things–may be the only places where beginning students encounter a different set of expectations about what education involves. But they might not necessarily understand or adapt to those expectations unless we signal very clearly that the classroom is a different kind of intellectual space, where the student has to be fully present.

  3. Laura Rosenthal

    Those are really good points. I especially like the last sentence about thinking about the classroom as a different kind of intellectual space. I too try to keep my classes as active as possible, so the student glued to a computer screen pretty much misses out on everything.

  4. Loring Pfeiffer

    One professor at my institution asks students who bring laptops to class to email their notes to her after class is done. This professor doesn’t actually read the students’ notes or assign grades to them, but she does scan what they send her. Doing so provides her with a sense of whether the laptops are being used for notetaking or web-surfing and–perhaps more importantly–builds into the class a sense of accountability for what’s going on on students’ computers. Hope that’s helpful!

  5. The laptops are a great example of the double-edged contributions of technology to the classroom: on the one hand, they bring the possibility of instantaneous information-gathering into the class (I’ve had students do google or OED searches on the spot); on the other, they can obviously create huge levels of distraction.

    My first thought is that maybe more of the contextualizations (Whigs and Tories etc.) might be done in a more active way, perhaps with groupwork, or maybe short-answer quizzes or share-and-pair, so that these students are forced to set aside the keyboard from time to time and engage with one another.

    I love Loring’s suggestion, though, that students with laptops submit their notes. I’ve done a similar thing, where I asked those students taking notes to submit them to the course-blog. Making this a regular expectation would probably cut down the possibility of in-class surfing, which I had happen once in a seminar room with about 5 other students present. I do agree with Kirstin’s point that students often develop bad habits in big, generic lecture courses with high enrollments, so that they are unprepared for the scrutiny of a small, more active class.

  6. Laura Rosenthal

    As mentioned, I have plenty of active learning, discussion, and group work during class and most students pay attention. My tiny zombie minority, however, would not come off of their screens even in small group work. They just scooted to the corner of their group. They did, however, have to participate when we did paired work, although one can’t do that every day.

    Sometimes I think that screens are for some students like what Weight Watchers calls a “red light food”–maybe you can each one piece of chocolate, but you won’t stop with the Doritos until the bag is empty. For other students, however, computers are much less of a distraction and can be used in class productively.

    An additional benefit of Loring’s suggestion is that there would be an archive of notes for students who couldn’t come to class.

    I’m still thinking about and would love to hear more experiences and policies . . . .

  7. I suppose the simplest way to deal with this is to announce that at certain points in the semester you will simply announce, “close your laptops,” and expect full attention. I’m assuming that you are already doing active learning, but that certain students seem less capable or more resistant to that mode of engagement.

    There are some strategies for enforcing better listening. You could pair the “screens down” moment with something that Ken Bain calls the “McEvoy Minute,” where everyone sits in a circle, then each student has one minute to make a contribution to the discussion (What the Best College Teachers Do, 130).

    Another strategy might be the end of class summary or response-time, where you end discussion about 5-10 minutes before the usual time, then have them summarize or respond to the previous hour’s discussion. That’s a really interesting way to get them to reflect on what they learned, and it gives you a more accurate insight into what they’re picking up from the discussions.

    Finally, my colleague Natalie Houston at ProfHacker had an interesting post about the conventions of tweeting or laptopping during others’ talks at MLA, and she discusses the possibility that we simply have different expectations and conventions concerning this depending on our backgrounds. DigiHum types, in her view, are more comfortable with this kind of multitasking than those in the more traditional disciplines. Her basic argument is that we perform “attention” in ways that others monitor, but that these performances vary from field to field. If your students are unable to recall important details from discussions, then obviously they are worse at multitasking than they think, but I believe that this is part of a longstanding argument about how our minds are being shaped by the technologies we use.

  8. Laura Rosenthal

    I think this paragraph in her post starts to get at what I’m talking about:

    “[A]t a conference, one performs paying attention — or not paying attention, since audience members are often under the scrutiny of the other panelists, as well as others in the audience. We all know that it’s possible to perform paying attention while actually thinking or writing about other things. It’s also possible to perform not paying attention: fidgeting, eye rolling, newspaper reading and so forth. The person who’s blogging or tweeting the talk may, in fact, be paying more attention to it through this active practice than others sitting still. But you really can’t tell by looking.”

    The difference is that as the instructor I ultimately have a better sense of who is learning. I completely agree with her that there simply seem to be different human capacities to multi-task. Who knows why. So the problem is that I want the student who are benefitting to keep benefitting–some students learn more by taking notes on their laptops and can even (dare I say?) glance at their email without losing the thread of the discussion. Others, however, have to eat the whole bag of Doritos. I think these days most students who bring their technology seem to be able to use it productively. There seems to be a small minority, however, who can’t multi-task very well, for whatever reason. It’s a very particular part, perhaps, of the general problem of teaching a group of people with different backgrounds, capacities, and learning styles.

    Anyway, your reponse and her post helped get at why it is so hard to devise a policy to address this issue. It is difficult to come up with a policy that accounts for these individual differences.

  9. Mmmmmmmmn….no. I still say no laptops (except on days when we’re doing group work that requires access to the blog/ECCO/digital files). I’m not decreeing that for all time, and my future self may find ways to integrate online access more thoroughly into the discussion format, but for now, no.

    Perhaps this is because I’m definitely a whole-bag-of-Doritos kind of person where things like internet access and, yes, chocolate are concerned (though I *can* put the bag of Doritos away). But there’s a real difference between a scholar with a twitter account during a conference presentation and a student taking notes onscreen with an open Wifi account. The scholar already knows what it feels like to be actively engaged with an oral presentation–how to distinguish the butt-covering boilerplate from the innovative substance, how to formulate an objection and then determine whether the objection is a quibble or significant, how to formulate a question and then listen to see if it gets answered, how to mesh the information presented with what one already knows. The scholar also knows how to use a liveblog or twitter account as an extension of all those activities.

    The students in our classes–many of them–don’t. And by and large, they aren’t being taught to do it in their other college classes. They’re learning to take information on board–but not to do anything critical or engaged or passionate or informed *with* it–not to question or probe except in the most rote and predigested ways. To get them to the point where tweeting a class discussion could be a useful intellectual activity, I think we need to make them close the computers and do it in real time with immediate feedback from the warm bodies that are in the room. (And, Laura, I’d bet you real money that even the non-zombies are spending more time on Facebook than you suspect!)

    I am intrigued, though, by the idea of having students submit their notes…and I have found more than once that the technological/pedagogical innovation I poo-poo becomes indispensable a few years later. So I’m open to further suggestions as they appear here!

  10. I’ve instituted a blanket “no laptops policy,” but not without reservations and not without some soul-searching. The point you make, Laura, about the pervasive use of technology elsewhere in our courses makes it difficult, ideologically speaking, to mandate banning laptops, while the temptations of the web mentioned by Kirstin make it difficult to allow them. For me personally, my zombies have also been limited to a fairly small number of students (2-3 maybe), and so that adds to the problem, since I have had exceptional students in my classes who used their computers every class. So what to do? For me it came down to the impact that the two or three zombies had on the class as a whole. For instance, I noticed one student in my class looking at another student’s computer (who sat in front of her and to the left); in a team taught lecture course, I could see students who were likely IMing one another smile at the same time, and type alternately on each of their own personal computers. While the ripple effect of someone watching, say, a youtube video of a sneezing baby panda is difficult to assess, I think that it is hard to allow such distractions when eliminating them is as easy as saying “Sorry, no laptops.” (When they have brain implants I’ll have to revisit this matter.)

    But I think that the bigger issue for me comes down to the value of classroom experience as such. To the extent that we have students use the web and computer technologies for assignments outside of class is probably the extent to which a little non-computer classroom time is valuable. Given the fact that our students interface with others through technology nearly every minute of their waking hours, I’m okay with thinking of my classroom as a tech-free environment (unless we are collectively viewing or listening to something on line). I can see why others would disagree, but for now I’m happy expecting my students to cultivate other forms of attention and engagement.

  11. I too have agonized over this and finally opted for allowing laptops to all. Most of the students are not zombies but I agree the 2-3 who often are create an atmosphere around them that is to say the least counterproductive. Ellen

  12. Laura Rosenthal

    Kirstin: yes, that’s good point. There is a big difference between a digital humanities professor blogging or tweeting at MLA and a sophomore checking facebook. Dwight also makes a good point, after taking both sides seriously, about *distraction* (someone writing in the Chronicle argued that laptops create a “cone of distraction”, effecting many more students than the one using the machine). This discussion has also made me recognize that one of the problems is that it distracts ME.

  13. Well, I could have guessed this, but UD does NOT like laptops.

    Like the rest of the commentators, I have mixed feelings about all this. I initially banned the laptops, because I found them distracting, especially in a seminar room. Later on, perhaps because, as Dwight suggested, I was doing so much more online stuff with blogs, I didn’t object to their inclusion. I’ve only had the “student surfing in the room” syndrome once (that I’ve known about), but I tend not to lecture much anymore, and have the luxury of teaching smaller classes and in smaller spaces. My suspicion is that if you make donation of class notes to the course blog a condition of in-class typing (with some kind of extra credit goody involved), you might very well smoke out those who use machines as a strategy to disengage. I’m going to try to institute a policy like this this term and see what happens.

  14. Also, I’ve noticed the students using a marking device I hear them calling a ‘pen’. They say they’re using it to take notes, but sometimes I catch them drawing little pictures instead, called ‘doobles’ I believe. Has anyone here developed a policy to deal with this problem?

    I tell the students they’re welcome to use any device for any course-related purpose. If they want to use them for personal purposes that’s fine too, but they should leave the room and if it’s porn, clean up before they return. That gets a nervous laugh but seems to set a useful boundary. I don’t think they necessarily make the connection of personal media use to that level of personal privacy. It’s not something I want to fight with them about – I’m not trying to force them to learn. So I let them know I’m aware there are both good things and bad things they could be doing with the tools, and I’d prefer they chose the former. That and a little gentle teasing of backsliders is usually enough. But like Dave, I have the luxury of relatively small sections.

    Also, I should mention that my informants in the disabilities community are leery of bans, because the tech may be providing an essential lifeline to someone with a learning challenge. And they’d prefer not to have to ‘out’ themselves and wear the tech like a neon sign by asking for special permission.

    We’re smart, effective people. I think we can probably figure out how to not just live with this stuff but turn it to advantage, and also cope somehow with the fact that no strategy is likely to capture all students.

  15. I invite students to bring laptops to class at the beginning of each course. As many have mentioned, I find it useful to have as many as possible in the room when we shift to group work that engages with our blog. As a rather fidgety person myself, I am also sympathetic toward those who remember best when listening and thinking are entwined with real notes and doodling. My solution to the distracted student in a class that demands participation is old fashioned, though. Students know I’m likely to call on someone out of the blue in any given class. As a postscript — thank you for the push toward WordPress, a vast improvement over the class sites I had been using!