Computing Profession

Laptops in the Classroom

Judy Robertson
Do you ever find yourself checking your email during a boring meeting? Do you drift off on a wave of RSS feeds when you should be listening to your colleagues? Do you pretend to be taking studious notes during seminars while actually reading Slashdot? In fact, shouldn’ t your full attention be somewhere else right now?
I find it increasingly tempting to do lots of things at once, or at least take microbreaks from activities to check mail or news. I do think it’s rude to do so during meetings so I try to stop myself. My students don’t tend to have such scruples. They use their laptops openly in class, and they’re not all conscientiously following along with my slides, I suspect. In fact, in a recent study published in AJET, 70% of students spent half their time sending email during class (instant messaging, or playing games or other non-academic activities were also popular). They did also take notes and other learning tasks, but they weren’t exactly dedicated to staying on task. If you’re interested in surveying your own class to find out what they really do behind their screens, the authors provide a reliable, validated questionnaire tool about laptop usage in education.
Of course, there have always been distractions during class–as the margins of my Maths 101 notes demonstrate with their elaborate doodles. It’s just that laptops make it so easy and seductive to drop your attention out of the lecture while still feeling that you are achieving something. ("I simply must update Facebook now. Otherwise people will not know I am in a boring lecture.")
Unsurprisingly, laptop usage in class has been associated with poorer learning outcomes, poorer self-perception of learning, and students report feeling distracted by their own screen as well as their neighbours’ (Fried 2008 in Computers and Education). Many educators get frustrated by this (see this article by Adams in CACM, for example) and there is debate about whether laptops should be banned, or whether the lecturer should have a big red button to switch off wireless (or electrocute all students) when he or she can’t stand it anymore.
Bear in mind, though, the studies I mention above were conducted in lecture-style classes and the students were not given guidance on how to effectively use their laptops to help them learn rather than arrange their social lives. It is possible to design active classes around laptop use  (if you can make sure that students who don’t own a laptop can borrow one) thereby making the technology work in your favour. For example, my students learn to do literature searches in class, try out code snippets, or critique the design of Web pages. And, yes, some of them still get distracted from these activities and wander off to FarmVille. But at least I have given them the opportunity to integrate their technology with their learning in a meaningful way. They are adult learners after all. It’s their decision how best to spend their brain cells in my class and my job is to give them a compelling reason to spend them on computer science rather than solitaire.

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