You put your laptop in, you take your laptop out, and shake it all about

The ink has hardly dried on one of my recent posts about learning technology in higher education (OK, the ink doesn’t have to dry much in this business, but I like the occasional rhetorical flourish) when I read about an American professor who is banning all laptops from his classes. So what is he then, some sort of Luddite? No, not necessarily. He believes to have found that laptops during lectures (and other events, including external ones) reduce productivity and compromise student exam answers.

I cannot help thinking that it might have been better to offer instruction on how to navigate in the online world, rather than attempt to take the whole computing business out of higher education. While it may well be true that laptops with their multiple uses can distract, it would seem to me that preparing the students properly would help higher education rather more. As other devices (such as the iPad) take the place of laptops, we must be imaginative in integrating these into the fabric of learning. But trying to make the technology go away is probably not the wisest approach.

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18 Comments on “You put your laptop in, you take your laptop out, and shake it all about”

  1. Perry Share Says:

    Probably coz all the students were facebooking during lectures! It would be like coming into a lecture in the ‘old days’ and being confronted with all the students reading the paper. And who hasn’t checked their e-mail, or similar, while at some tedious meeting?

    You can thus: a) make your lectures so interesting and/or interactive that students will not want to spend time facebooking; b)ban laptops completely; or c) develop a code of etiquette for behaviour in such settings.

    All are possible and might be best in different situations.

    A more searching question is that old chestnut, what is the value of face-to-face lectures in any case?

  2. no-name Says:

    An infectiously motivated and enthusiastic teacher is what is required in a classroom, not iPads or the like (unless it’s a class in how to use an iPad, obviously).

  3. Ernie Ball Says:

    Oh, come on. There is no lecturer sufficiently stimulating to wrest student eyeballs away from Facebook and IM and all the other things they find so compelling. A lecture, after all, is ultimately just somebody talking and everyone knows that that’s . . . . boring.

    I don’t ban laptops. I simply unplug the wifi router in the lecture theatre. Problem solved.

  4. no-name Says:

    Ernie, if you think that learning is, and can only be, boring, you might be in the wrong business.

    Further, I have been in classrooms with fascinating lecturers who were were able to hold their student’s attention. I aspire to same.

    Plugging out the wifi router is a good idea, but it would be better if you didn’t have to, don’t you think?

    • Jilly Says:

      Ernie was being ironic in his first sentence, no-name…

    • Ernie Ball Says:

      I wasn’t being ironic and I, obviously don’t think that learning is and can only be boring. What I do think is that learning will never be as compelling to most students as Facebook in much the same way that, say, Thelonious Monk or Bach will never be as compelling to them as the latest pop tune. If the game is garnering their attention, we can never win against the appeal of endless distraction. Therefore, we must make a space in which learning can happen and that involves tuning out the distractions for a time. That, in itself, is a valuable lesson. You don’t do Facebook in church or a museum and that’s not because you can’t or because what’s going on their has managed to compete for your interest and hold it. It’s because you respect the place and the experience it offers you. To act as if “entertainment value” is the grounds on which we have to compete, is already to lose the game. Education is not entertainment and the more it becomes entertainment, the less educational it becomes. I repeat: this does not mean that I think courses have to be boring to be good.

      So, yes, it would be better if we didn’t have to unplug the router. But I’m afraid that battle is lost. Richard Feynman himself could not compete with Facebook, the pie-in-the-sky hopeful visions of “no-name” notwithstanding.

      • Perry Share Says:

        Clearly option c)in my post above – developing a code of etiquette – is what is required. I was recently discussing matters with a colleague (today in fact) when I was completely distracted by an incoming email – I had to ask her to repeat what she had just said. Very rude.

        So I am now going to develop my own ‘code’ which means switching off the PC screen when talking to someone, unless we are actually going to work on the screen.

        There is no reason why lecturers cannot discuss with students the pros and cons of multitasking in lectures at the outset of a course – perhaps even testing students’ ability to do so – which could be quite illuminating for all!

  5. cormac Says:

    When I get back to Ireland, I will do exactly what Ernie does. The problem is not the laptops, but the internet – and it is a problem.
    Have anyone sat in an undergraduate class recently? I sat in on several courses at Harvard and MIT this year, and was absolutely shocked at the vast numbers of students I could see fooling around on the web instead of listening in class.The problem is that students think they can multitask – at questiontime , it wa clear they can’t!

    • no-name Says:

      “When I get back to Ireland, I will do exactly what Ernie does.”

      What’s that exactly? Give such “boring” lectures that you don’t even expect your students to listen to you? Or plug out the wifi because you think that what you are saying, and the way in which you are saying it, is of little interest to the people who have (probably) paid thousands in fees to hear you speak?

      It’s a sad day if there are teachers out there who think that they, and their material, are no match for a Facebook status update. I suspect that it is this attitude that is infecting the students who are to be found surfing the net during class, rather than the teacher’s enthusiasm for the subject.

      Plugging out the wifi is a good idea for those who recognise that they are not able to hold the group’s attention, but that means that they are failing to engage the students and should reflect on what they are doing wrong and how they could improve. I would recommend to such individuals that they attend classes given by lecturers who are known to be excellent in their chosen area (communicating their knowledge to others in an engaging manner).

      In my experience good teachers don’t need to fear students becoming distracted and do not have to take precautionary measures.

      • Ernie Ball Says:

        No-name, do you always pontificate on subjects about which you know nothing? Among the things you know nothing about: me and my lectures or lecturing style, whether I am able to hold the students’ interest, etc.

        I note that you’ve taken up none of the considered points I’ve made and prefer to launch into some sort of ad hominem rant that has nothing to do with what I said.

        But leaving the internet connected during a lecture is not a million miles away from having a television on during a lecture in that 1) it serves no purpose; 2) it’s distracting, no matter how good the lecturer is; 3) there is no need for me to have to try to “compete” with it for the students’ attention. Either they are in the lecture to hear what is being discussed or they are on facebook. Not both.

        Your view appears to be that a great lecture should be able to lecture with an unrelated moving live television image beamed to the screen behind him, since you seem to think that no level of distraction can compete with a “good teacher.” That’s not only naive, it’s obviously imbecilic.

  6. jfryar Says:

    I have to agree with Ernie’s general point but won’t comment on the discussions that have followed other than to say I’ve a fiver riding on Ernie to win the argument!

    Just a little anecdote though. It was the second week of term and about half way through the lecture I noticed a student with a laptop and an external webcam attached to the top of the screen. I continued through the lecture somewhat intrigued by the fact that the webcam was pointing in my direction. I decided to ignore it and forgot about it by the time the next lecture took place.

    Sure enough, the same student was recording the lecture on webcam. At the end of the that lecture I asked him what was going on. One of the students had failed to secure accomodation having paid his deposit to a ‘landlord’ who subsequently vanished. He was travelling up from Galway on a Monday, sleeping on the floor of whichever mate would accomodate him, then would head back on Friday. Since his train got in after the Monday morning lecture, his friend was videoing every course so he could get caught up that afternoon when he finally made it to Dublin!

  7. cormac Says:

    No-name: actually, I love lecturing and get far more invitations to give public lectures than I can take up!
    My point is that here in Harvard and MIT, I have witnessed, from the audience, superb lecturers with stunning presentations lose out to the instant allure of the web (and it’s not just facebook).
    I would probably have agreed with you before I witnessed this for myself.
    Finally,many of the students themselves are aware of it, just as I can’t resist pretzels!

  8. no-name Says:

    If a lecturer were to write this:

    “Oh, come on. There is no lecturer sufficiently stimulating to wrest student eyeballs away from Facebook and IM and all the other things they find so compelling. A lecture, after all, is ultimately just somebody talking and everyone knows that that’s . . . . boring”

    and receive this as a reply:

    “…Plugging out the wifi router is a good idea, but it would be better if you didn’t have to, don’t you think?”,

    to be countered by the lecturer with:

    “….I note that you’ve taken up none of the considered points I’ve made and prefer to launch into some sort of ad hominem rant that has nothing to do with what I said…. That’s not only naive, it’s obviously imbecilic”,

    then nobody would be surprised that the lecturer’s students prefer Facebook.

    • Ernie Ball Says:

      Fortunately, that account doesn’t fit what actually transpired, as all but the most abject cretins will be able to verify by checking who said what to whom when in the exchange above.

  9. ank Says:

    interesting discussion- just trolling and stumbled upon this. I am a mother who cannot understand the ipod, facebook and bb phone multitasking while studying. My kids are in second level – your future students. Peace


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