“The Laptop (or professor) Problem”

A loyal reader sent me this article, which I’ve seen in a couple of different places, “The Laptop Problem” (from The Washington Monthly). This isn’t a new issue:  the basic desire to institutionally ban laptops from classrooms ignores at least three issues for me.  First, sometimes it’s really useful for students to have laptops with internets connections.  Second, there’s a really easy solution to this that’s missing and this article suggests:  if a professor thinks that students ought to turn off their laptops, why not say “hey, close your laptops and pay attention to this.”  How hard is that?

And third, if a professor is so boring that it is prompting students to check their Facebook status and/or update their Twitter feeds, then maybe they ought to be more interesting?


10 thoughts on ““The Laptop (or professor) Problem”

  1. Your last comment reminds me about the criticism leveled at high school teachers in the face of overwhelming pressure on students to drop out of school – just be more interesting.


    By the way, some departments on our very own beloved EMU campus have instituted no laptop rules in department meetings. Same thing?


    • Being more interesting isn’t the only solution though. My first two suggestions were to teach actively and ask student to make use laptops, and, if a teacher needs lecture about something (hopefully briefly), then ask students to close their laptops.

      But yeah, I think there’s something to be said about being interesting, and I think that we start making better use of the online space in face-to-face settings. For me, the most boring part of the meetings I go to are addressing things that could be done via email, a blog, some kind of web site, etc. The same can be said in classes. Most lecture material could be delivered electronically, which would then allow the f2f time of a class to be used for more active things.

      And I’m one of those offending parties who often has a laptop open during many meetings. I’m usually shifting between writing notes, dealing with email, doing some low-stakes grading (quizzes or attendance or something like that), etc. But if things are kinda boring, sure, I shift to Twitter, Facebook, my RSS feed, etc.


  2. I dunno about that. My job is to teach, not to entertain. And teaching is a two-way street. If students come to class expecting to “be entertained” rather than “to learn,” then we have a problem. The former assumes a passive role for the student; the latter assumes an active role. My classes are all set up on the premise that people are there because they actively chose to be, and because they want to learn. Laptop zombots aren’t going to learn much, no matter what I do/don’t do, because they are not mentally present.

    Also, I think the comparison to department meetings is inapt. In class, people are grappling with new ideas, different perspectives, new skills, etc. “New” and “different” require full attention and effort. In contrast, many (not all!) aspects of typical meetings are about rehashing old stuff, reminding people of stuff they already know, etc. Regardless, in my experience, few people multi-task nearly as well as they think they do, and most people are much more obvious about it than they think they are.


    • I didn’t say entertain; I said be interesting. There is a difference.

      If all the professor is doing is standing there and lecturing– a format that really could be delivered just as well and maybe even better over YouTube or something like that– then I really do understand the student’s perspective on this and I think that salty dog is right. Calling laptop/cell phone use in those circumstances “inappropriate” does seem to me to be more about the professor’s ego. But if the professor sets up the class so that it’s not just lecturing, that there’s interaction/activities/etc. with the students that demand their full attention, then students won’t be compelled to use their laptops/cellphones. Or if they are, it’s a whole lot more inappropriate.

      I’ll say this about my own use of laptops/cell phones during meetings: when it’s stuff I don’t feel like I need to pay complete attention to, I pull out the laptop. But there are often enough experiences where I then have to put it down and pay closer attention. 😉


  3. The laptop or cellphone texting issue in class is more about the professor’s ego than anything else (how dare they not show rapt attention in my class). In the end, the student is responsible for knowing the material whether they were on the laptop, doodling or just daydreaming throughout the semester.


  4. In one of my grad classes this year, a grad student persistently texted in class, refusing to engage in the class discussion. When I asked her to stop texting, she exclaimed that she needed to reorganize her Twitter account and then she went back to texting. In a rather small seminar class such as this, her behavior was quite obvious, especially since her phone was placed at eye level and was clearly visible to the class. I understand that students have all sorts of priorities, but frankly, I thought her behavior was rude.


  5. You know how hard it is to handwrite legible notes? Ah well, in hindsight I wished I’d used a pen-in-hand more often, since now I have to take the Michigan Bar Exam without being able to use a computer, and that’s like 6 hours of constant handwriting.


  6. Eagle Talon: Yes, those of us from the stone ages DO know how “hard” that is. 😉

    Site Dad, it is interesting that you say you sometimes have to put aside your laptop to pay better attention. One of the things that frustrates me (sometimes) is that students who are so tuned in to their devices, don’t even pick up on the fact that they need to set aside those devices at certain points. That level of self awareness isn’t always there. (Are you sure it is, for you?) Like I said, people tend not to be as good at multi-tasking as they think they are.


  7. A useful class rule is that any use of any electronic device for any purpose that’s not class related may result in the device being confiscated by anyone who notices its illegitimate use. Works marvelously for concentrating people’s attention on the defined class activities (which in my classes, I try hard to make relevant to what students are assessed/graded on).


  8. Young people today feel they need all of this external stimuli to be engaged when they do not realize they are doing the exact opposite.

    They are also not good multi-taskers (proven in studies) even though they think they are. In the next 4-5 years the incoming freshmen at EMU will not be able to communicate via email at all and will not know to how write sentences and will not know how to engage beyond multi-media presentations. This is a HUGE issue going forward for academia (and society too) and while I have none of the answers, I know these questions need to be asked more and more.


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