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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Are laptops OK in the classroom?

Ian Ayres has a Freakonomics post today about students using laptops to surf the internet in class. He brings up a couple good points, including whether there is any good a priori argument against allowing students to multi-task. Certainly, I’d love to think that I am so brilliant and fascinating that students will avoid checking email for fear of missing one scintillating moment – but since I also live in the real world, I’m a bit more torn. The ‘student as customer’ model of college suggests that I should let them do whatever they want since they paid to be there (that is, if they want to ‘waste’ their money by surfing in class, that’s their problem). I have huge problems with that model as a teacher but the part of me that believes strongly in self-responsibility is more sympathetic. I think the one clear argument against allowing students to surf is the negative externality created when other students are distracted (given my own experience in meetings sitting next to people who were doing something besides paying attention, I know that even those with the best intentions can be distracted by a good game of Spider going on in front of them). Ayres deals with this by only allowing surfing in the back row, though I’m not sure how he manages that exactly. Some of the comments to Ayres’ post ask “When did students start needing a laptop in class anyway?” Generations of students have done just fine with plain old pen and paper so does having a laptop really improve outcomes much? That is, of course, an empirical question and there is at least some evidence that the answer is no.

I think the most profound question is one posed by commenter 41, Erika: “How much is surfing really deterring the teacher from teaching and how much of it is deterring the student from learning?” Too often, it seem that college faculty focus only on the first part (‘teaching’), without understanding the connection to the second part (‘learning’). Much more about that in future posts...

Read More: Are laptops OK in the classroom II


  1. Interesting points you raise. I often doodled on my notebook in school, a quiet distraction. I usually have my laptop at meetings and I'm often multitasking and I rarely feel like I missed anything.
    What I find so fascinating is that on the one hand students seem to be not paying attention, yet passing and graduating. How come we're not asking the question at this level of the educational endeavor as well?

  2. I teach an all-college required course for first-year students. We meet mostly in small discussion sections, but once every two weeks we meet for a large lecture to contextualize the next text on the syllabus. We have as much as 20% of the room using laptops for purposes other than note taking, and it drives many of us crazy.

    But I believe that the solution is not to outlaw laptops but rather incorporate their use into the goals of the lecture period. So have a section of laptop users posting lecture notes to a wiki for all to reference later. Give another group the task of searching for and posting links to key terms, concepts, etc. Charge others with finding relevant images, texts, audio or video.

    I think we should imagine laptop use during lecture as a powerful collaborative tool for creating meaning from lecture content.


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