Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Laptop policies: Getting beyond 'yes or no'

Tomorrow's Prof blog has a nice post summarizing some recent research about student use of laptops (and like devices) in the classroom. Some main findings:

  • More than half of students at least sometimes bring a laptop to class.
  • The number of questions asked in class increases when students can ask questions via their laptops.
  • Most students report that laptops, their own and those of other students, are sometimes a distraction in class.
  • 35% of the students report that when they have their laptops available, they spend at least 10 minutes per class period using e-mail and social networking sites.
One study in particular addressed the effectiveness of using laptops with a suite of stuff called LectureTools, with which I am not familiar, but is described as 
 an interactive suite of web-based tools designed to allow questioning practices in lecture that actively engage students and go beyond the multiple choice format typically supported by classroom response systems (clickers). Additional functions include the ability for students to take notes and make drawings on PowerPoint slides, rate their understanding of each slide, pose questions anonymously during the lecture, and review the recorded lecture after class.
Sounds cool, to say the least.

But what caught my eye were some suggestions that go beyond thinking about student laptop use as a yes/no question. In other words, could we think about this question as a matter of how or when students use their laptops rather than if they can? One idea from the article along these lines is to establish a laptop-free zone for those who wish to avoid this distraction. More generally, I suspect that rather than saying yes or no to laptops in the classroom, we should instead remember that, like any technology, laptops are tools that can be used for well or ill. The task is to figure how to separate the two and guide our students to use their laptops in learning-conducive ways. After all, it seems pretty clear that laptops
function best when they fulfill a clear instructional goal and when they are used in specific ways that support student learning. And while some faculty may decide either to ban such devices or to adopt programs such as LectureTools, there are intermediate steps that can take advantage of the potential power of laptops while minimizing their distracting effects. 


  1. LectureTools allows student to pose questions anonymously? We need to go to college to learn how to be anonymous? I haven't been paying attention. I thought college was a time for learning how to be an adult, asking the question, considering possibilities, meeting people eye to eye, and having genuine conversations. Thank goodness it's becoming another message board—so much easier not to have to personally invest in discussion.

  2. Grad student here. I've run something like this in a large lecture class, and know of some other folks who have done similar things. We were all initially shocked at how many more questions we received from students. We had a better sense of where they were having trouble and, happily, plenty of relevant and interesting questions to respond to during the lecture. I suggest folks give it a shot. All you need is a chat program that students can send messages to during class without identifying themselves. (Another benefit: anonymizing questions controls for implicit biases that encourage calling on men more often than women.)

    We need to go to college to learn how to be anonymous? I haven't been paying attention.

    I think the idea is rather that many (most?) students want to be able to ask questions while remaining anonymous, but if they cannot have both, they'll preserve their anonymity. That's not surprising given the socialization most students (in the US at least) receive leading up to college. Students who ask questions in pre-college classes risk being mocked for trying to hard, for being stupid, for showing off, for wasting time, for making others look bad, for sucking up, etc. And let's be honest, that risk doesn't entirely go away when they reach college.

    In light of that, I think we're much better off offering unobtrusive accommodations for their desire for anonymity than trying to force them out of their shells, especially when forcing them out of their shells threatens to conflict with helping them engage with the material in the first place.

    That doesn't justify all accommodations, of course---students who are afraid to have anyone see their work can't expect to be excused from turning anything in---but this seems like an easy one to implement.

    If it's any consolation, I think it is very likely that students who are afraid to ask questions in class are still learning how to be an adult, asking questions, considering possibilities, meeting people eye to eye, and having genuine conversations; they just aren't doing it in this particular setting. Given the limited range of social interaction available and the clear hierarchy (sage on a stage or guide on the side, you're still the one with the power to fail folks) it wouldn't be surprising if most classrooms aren't a very conducive environment for that. However, what the students do learn in the philosophy classroom may very well help them when they are learning to be adults outside of the classroom. If that's true, then it is all the more reason to allow modest accommodations so that they can take as much as they can from their philosophy classes into their other projects.

  3. *sigh*
    "for trying *too* hard," that is.

  4. I just discovered this blog and I think it is great! I was wondering if we could have a discussion about the following topic (sorry if you have discussed this already). I teach global justice and political philosophy, and the complaint I often hear from students is "well, we agree that X would be fair (X could be something like world equality, the application of Rawls's Difference Principle, or any other moral ideal that students like), but the problem is that it will not happen in real world because agents act according to their self interest and do not care about fairness". Notice that this is different from the typical relativistic objection. They are not saying that there are no objective or universal moral standards. They agree that such standards exist, but believe that it does not make sense to justify them because the world will never be shaped in accordance with them anyway. How should philosophy professors deal with kinds of skeptic objections? Any clue?


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