Posted tagged ‘laptops’

Screen them out?

November 28, 2017

One morning in 1986 I walked into a classroom in Trinity College Dublin to deliver one of my scintillating lectures. Just as I was about to start, the lecture theatre door opened and a student walked in carrying – no, I’ll say lugging – what turned out to be a so-called a ‘portable computer’. It was ‘portable’ in the sense that someone was carrying it, but if I remember correctly not without a lot of physical effort and perspiration. He then settled down, sort of, on a seat, and what ensued was a search for a socket so he could fire up the machine. This involved carrying the plug, which was at the end of a pleasingly long cable, to the not-quite-nearest wall where he had identified the presence of a source of power. He then switched on the device (though not before tripping over the cable on his way back). The device, we soon discovered, had an industrial-quality fan that managed to drown out various other noises coming from the floppy disk drive (5 1/4 inch of course). So settled in and visibly proud of this epoch-marking technological marvel, the student turned encouragingly to me to await my pearls of wisdom; and as I delivered them, the clicking of his keyboard was almost audible above the storm-force fan.

Yes, dear reader, you could say that was distracting. But it was also invigorating, as we all had a ringside seat as the new digital era was ushered in. And how far we have come since. My sister has just bought a laptop which, as far as I can make out, would fit easily into a modest document folder and which makes no noise whatsoever unless specifically asked to perform in this way. And of course you and I have all sorts of technology available to us, from phones that would put a 1986 mainframe computer to shame to tablets on which you can read the most extensive textbook while simultaneously listening to Taylor Swift. And all of these devices are in every classroom.

But not to everyone’s satisfaction. Susan Dynarski, Professor of Education, Public Policy and Economics at the University of Michigan, has had quite enough of laptops:

‘The best evidence available now suggests that students should avoid laptops during lectures and just pick up their pens.’

She has concluded this on the basis of research carried out in two Canadian universities and, curiously, the United States Military Academy. This research, in summary, suggested that laptops stop students from learning effectively: not just the students using them, but anyone within a reasonable range. Other studies appear to support this conclusion.

It seems obvious enough to me that my student in 1986 was himself distracted and had a distracting effect on others, as would be the case if, say, someone entered a classroom on a motorbike. But the rest of this seems to me to be more arguable. What matters much more than the technology or the device is the attitude of the teacher and the engagement of the student. Technology is good if used well and bad if used badly. Achieving the former (beneficial) effect depends on the skill of the teacher and the approach to pedagogy. I suspect that the analysis of educational technology needs that a more elaborate consideration of what may constitute good practice. And by the way, during the same lecture in 1986 a student’s pen broke while he was writing sending ink through the air landing on his neighbour’s clothes. That was even more distracting, not least because his neighbour reacted slightly violently. Maybe they shouldn’t reach for their pens, either.

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

June 2, 2011

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.

Laptop exams

May 23, 2011

About a year ago I asked a group of students what they most disliked about their studies. One gripe they all had in common was examinations – but not that they were obliged to sit these, but rather that the answers had to be written out by hand. One of them told me that exams were the only thing for which he now used handwriting. Everything else, even lecture notes, he now did on a laptop or smartphone (or maybe now a tablet computer). He no longer possessed even one notebook; he could not see why he would ever need one. He did possess a ballpoint pen, but he illustrated its usefulness to him by telling me that, since he had been given it three years previously, he had never needed to buy a new refill. So why, he asked, should he be forced to use it for exams? If we were going to be that retro-minded, why not go the whole hog and insist on students using quill pens with ink?

Well, if he were a student at Edinburgh University he might be about to get some relief. According to a report in the newspaper Scotland on Sunday, the university is considering allowing students to use laptops in exams, though with software installed that would prevent them from going online or using other programs during the exam. According to the report, ‘senior officials at Edinburgh University believe it is unfair to expect undergraduates to resort to pens and paper during critical assessments when most of their coursework is done using a keyboard.’ Not only is the physical process of writing by hand now stressful for them, but they are also used to planning their work and executing it on a computer, so that doing it by hand unsettles them. In fact, Edinburgh are not altogether pioneers – secondary school students in Norway have been using laptops in examinations since 2009, as have students in some American universities.

It is probably true to say that we have barely scratched the surface in considering what modern technology may do to change teaching and pedagogy, and how it is affecting the students’ perceptions of study methods and assessment. Right now it looks as if universities will, without any particular coordination, slip into new ways of doing things, though quite probably not consistently. It is time to pay a little more attention to these matters.

Laptop fever

June 5, 2009

Recently a student came to my office with a request. As he sat down he opened his briefcase and took out a small laptop, placed it on the table and booted it up. And as he asked his question and listened to my answer, he was typing away energetically on the keyboard. I don’t know what he was writing: maybe he was taking down what I was saying, maybe he was composing his latest entry on Twitter, maybe he was playing Sudoku – who knows? I was quite intrigued, but said nothing. When he was finished he packed up his laptop and left.

I am told by colleagues that the laptop is now a common sight in the lecture theatre or classroom, with an increasing number of students bringing them along and using them visibly. Distracting though that may be, it will be less so than the Olympia typewriter that a student once brought to a seminar early on in my lecturing career, which moreover he was not excessively skilled at using: the keys regularly got stuck as he typed, and as he released them he was fond of muttering an expletive or two, which were repeated sotto voce by some of the other students.

Generally I am a supporter of the use of technology where it assists, and I see no reason why this should not apply to the laptop. Of course some may be using it for wholly extraneous purposes, but then again my fellow student back in the late 1970s who, every Friday, had Sporting Life open under the desk so he could study the form ahead of placing his next horse racing bets was not less distracting then the student managing their Facebook profile would be now. It is unreasonable to seek to turn back the technological clock, it would make much more sense to engage the student and their hardware and facilitate their use of the laptop for purposes relevant to the class.

Anyway, I am now bringing my own laptop along to meetings. It’s useful, and great when things get boring.