At Duke University. 95% of its students bring computers to campus, with 95% of those being laptops. Laptops are changing the ways students learn in class, as well as the way (and the places) students study.
Many students and professors alike agree that laptops can serve as distractions during class. So much so, in fact, that about a third of the sociology department faculty at Duke has banned laptops from their classrooms.
And not only are students who spend class surfing the web, emailing, and uploading photos to Facebook distracted, but these activities can also be distracting to other students sitting beside or behind them. But is banning laptops the solution to the problem?
Engaging laptops to improve student attentiveness
A laissez faire approach to laptops in the classroom will often lead to distraction. Lecturing at students is a technique that has been used for hundreds of years – its effectiveness can perhaps best be represented by the age-old image of students sleeping in class.
But despite their potential to distract, instructors who change their style of teaching to reflect the new ways students are thinking and engaging with the world outside of the classroom are more successful at getting students to stay away from social networking sites and getting them to pay attention in class.
"I often ask people to look things up, confirm a date, find an image, etc.," said Lee Baker, dean of academic affairs at Duke’s Trinity College of Arts and Sciences.
Such strategies may require some planning before class, but can go a long way in making students more engaged in class. This is in no small part because having students interact with the class breaks up the monotony. Michael Munger, professor of political science and economics at Duke explains:
"The problem is not the distraction offered by the laptop," Munger said. "It’s the need of the human mind to have things broken up into pieces where concentration is possible, for focused attention is interesting and enjoyable. If the students weren’t looking at their laptop, they would be dozing or doodling."
If you ignore laptops, students will pay more attention to the Internet than they do to your course material. But, if you ban laptops, students can still easily find ways to distract themselves, like texting, doodling, or simply staring off into space. Next time you plan out a lecture, think about how you might be able to use the devices students are bringing to class for the powers of learning.
What role does the professor have in the benefits (or disadvantages) of laptops in the classroom?
Simply put, if students are asked to learn passively, i.e. through hours of dull lecturing, laptops in the classroom can only serve to distract. A handful of students will use them for note-taking, but many will be unable to resist the siren song of the latest emails and tweets.
Even taking laptops out of the equation means students will simply doodle on their notes, “secretly” text their friends, or simply stare off into space.
According to Munger, bluntly, "the fact is that laptops don’t waste students’ time; professors do."
Professors who engage devices in the classroom can get their students to pay more attention in class. More importantly, they can get students to engage and interact with the material. This will encourage students to research and think critically about the material, something that cannot be achieved if students are simply passively listening to lecture.
Thus, it not only matters what material is covered, but also how that material is covered. And in that capacity, laptops offer an excellent opportunity to challenge the status quo of lectures by interacting more with students, and asking them to interact with materials.
"Laptops can help achieve learning outcomes or they can distract from learning outcomes," Baker said. "The professor is in the best position to evaluate the use of laptops in his or her classroom."
Before dismissing the value of laptops in your classroom, think about how you might be able to engage laptops to improve learning outcomes. Simply giving some thought to how you might be able to encourage beneficial use of technology in your classroom can be a huge first step towards improving engagement, attentiveness, and learning outcomes.
Download our free ebook to learn how professors at the University of Michigan are using LectureTools, an interactive presentation tool, to provide an in-class learning platform for student laptops.