Banning Laptops in The Lecture Hall
I've been hearing about big changes in education since I started teaching nearly 20 years ago. In recent years, I've actually been seeing some real innovation that has challenged teachers to move beyond the same model of instruction that we have been using for centuries. My optimism faded a bit, however, after reading an article from The Globe and Mail, "Professors Push Back Against Laptops in the Lecture Hall." The article provides another example of educators trying to force students to conform to our outdated models of instruction rather than adapting instructional methods to the needs of students and the changing world around us.
If 85% of Your Students are Off Task...
If I found out that 85 percent of my students chose to focus on something other than my lesson, I'd have to take a hard look at my lessons and ask why students weren't engaged. The Globe and Mail article tells the story of a professor who assigned a graduate student to sit in the back of the lecture hall to see what was on the screens of students during class. When he found out that 85 percent of his students were using their computers for something unrelated to his class his reaction was to ban laptops. A professor friend of mine once told me, "The problem with universities is that they think they are the universe." Perhaps this is nowhere better exemplified than in the persistent resistance to change.
The Teaching Equals Learning Illusion
When we find out that students are engaging "in 'high-tech ‘doodling’ – sending e-mails, exchanging instant messages, surfing the Web" many professors react by banning laptops. I'm glad that professors didn't ban pencils back when I was low-tech doodling in college. Are we confusing compliance (copying notes and looking attentive) with learning? Maybe it's time to look at why students are doodling -- whether it is with a pencil or a laptop.
For those who would rather force students to conform to outdated ideas of what instruction is supposed to be, maybe we should look to Harvard's Eric Mazur who described his success as a teacher as "a complete illusion, a house of cards." When Dr. Mazur became frustrated by a lack of basic understanding by physics students, he didn't blame the students, instead he looked at what wasn't working with the delivery of instruction. Quoted in Harvard Magazine, Dr. Mazur explains,
“The students did well on textbook-style problems. They had a bag of tricks, formulas to apply. But that was solving problems by rote. They floundered on the simple word problems, which demanded a real understanding of the concepts behind the formulas.” More interested in learning than teaching, Mazur shifted to an interactive pedagogy. With active learning, students don't simply make note of new information, they are required to apply that information.
Remove Distractions or Provide a More Engaging Experience?
It's often easier to find a scapegoat than to adapt to a rapidly changing world, but we are doing a disservice to our students with such an inflexible way of thinking. You can remove laptops from the classroom, but the doodling will continue, it just might not be as easy to see from the lectern. In fact, I can personally attest that the doodling and off task behaviors were present long before laptops came on the scene. Before laptops, it just wasn't as obvious to professors that their students weren't actively engaged in learning.
In the time of Google and YouTube the educator who views their primary role as the dispenser of knowledge, has been replaced. They've been replaced by the very machines they are banning. Back when teachers were the primary source of information for students a teacher-centered classroom may have made sense, but with virtually unlimited access to information at their fingertips, it's time to rethink the way we approach teaching today's learners. Technology will never replace great teachers but as David Thornburg, building on the words of Arthur C. Clarke, said "Any teacher who can be replaced by a computer should (and deserves to) be."
Some have cited studies that tout the advantages of taking notes by hand, and I am in no way discounting that. I'll also acknowledge that laptops may not be beneficial in all settings. So I understand the desire to ban laptops, but please don't ban laptops without first looking at why students are tuning out your lectures first.
Featured image courtesy of Greg Pearson.
"The System" comic courtesy of Unearthed Comics