Laptops in higher ed classrooms

Watwood had a great post
a few weeks back on student use of laptops in
university classrooms. I just found it and left
him a comment
(as you can see, I was my usual restrained self!):

The whole issue is just goofy.

First of all, who in their right mind expects students to sit and listen to
them for 50 minutes (or longer) without EVER wandering off mentally? It’s
unreasonable and goes against how we know the brain works. You can’t fight

Second, as Seth Godin notes, if your target audience isn’t listening, it’s
not their fault but yours. Just like we tell K-12 teachers: classroom management
(i.e., student attention) stems from good instruction.

Finally, these digital devices – particularly in conjunction with the
Internet – are the most empowering things we humans have yet created. Why don’t
we start figuring out how to use them productively in class rather than banning

Our K-12 and higher ed students think we’re totally clueless and they’re

Be sure to check
out Britt’s post
. I thought his scenarios were excellent.

6 Responses to “Laptops in higher ed classrooms”

  1. There are plenty of things to consider when browsing during instruction in a collegiate setting. With some up front conversations, browsing can provide a much richer texture to the classroom, differentiated by student interest, background skill, and learning styles.

    I have lived the better part of almost two years in higher education classrooms (weekends primarily) where browsing an author, concept, or technical term took me deeper, for a few minutes, that the “presenter” will ever know. On multiple occasions, I went to to purchase a title referenced only to find the extended reading as valuable as the discussion at hand.
    Here’s the point, instructors open to the process of inquiry and a constructivist approach welcome the momentum they create in their topic of study. Touchdown!

    Are all instructors comfortable with the process of my open notebook (computers) rather than the typical open notebook (spiral variety)? No. Why:
    INSTRUCTOR A: I know the sum total of what you need to know – so sit back and enjoy.
    MY RESPONSE: I respect what you know and can be able to do, but I am not a passive learner.

    INSTRUCTOR B: I will control your learning because what I want you to learn is static and the experiences I structure for you conform to the parameters of learning I have set. Tools I use help me to increase my ability to share content.
    MY RESPONSE: I am more inquisitive and creative than you give me credit for. Let’s collaborate on what I can do show you what I learned, what I can do with my new learning. My tools help me to make more meaning from the content you present.
    INSTRUCTOR C: I want to make sure I can cover material and manage conversations that fit our time frame.
    MY RESPONSE: I respect the quality of content and pacing of instruction, which is critical to classroom management. I just need to process what you are teaching in non-linear ways.

    So, what this type of learning look like in a high school? middle school? elementary school? How can we use technologies, or structure for student use of technology, to enlarge their capacity for learning, and demonstrating what they know and can be able to do?


  2. Joe the focused (not :) Reply December 1, 2008 at 7:59 pm


    My experience with Laptops in a small graduate level class five summers back was wonderful. We had constant fact checking, with new, interesting, relevant information being added into the learning environment. It allowed a much wider sphere of ‘expertise’ to manifest and, yet, respect for the professor never diminished.
    The other shoe however does make a rather loud sound as it drops. ‘Paying attention for 50 minutes without wandering off mentally’ is a most basic practice in all of the great meditative traditions and seems to be a much neglected aspect of our mental training or ‘schooling’ in America today. We must not fall into the ever present ‘multi tasking’ excuse as a substitute for deep engagement in learning. Without the most basic skill of knowing how ‘to pay attention’ we may just be traveling to Disneyland school in which all is entertainment (or boredom).

    Just my half pence.

  3. Britt’s posts were worth reading.
    So if lap tops are banned from use in the classroom all students would be engaged in the lecture. They might have to ban my pencil since I doodle when the lecture goes on and on and on… Might have to also ban the book I usually have concealed for the same purpose. Blinders would be nice since I guarantee there will be someone distracting me by tapping, writing, or just looking interesting. Finally shut my brain off since that is what seems to get me started in all the above activities. Oh, I guess I need that to keep listening to the lecture without being distracted.
    So engage me instead with interactive note taking, research fact finding, and relevent information that begs me to think and use all the information that technology can give me.

  4. Thank you for sharing the post.

    Interesting. While I am a strong advocate of laptops in the classroom and using technology to enhance learning, quoting Godin and placing all the blame on faculty is perhaps a touch misguided? Not only should faculty learn to embrace technology, but students must also learn a bit of responsibility and that there are times when you need to focus.

    I see an opportunity here to teach several lessons that will serve students well in the long run.

  5. This is really good stuff. It is so good.

  6. It might be useful to remember that we aren’t taling about kids checking facts here; rather, shoping for shoes. And since when dd paying attention for 50 mins become an unreasonable expectation? Let’s face it, anyone who wants to learn anything worth knowing might find this strange ’50 min rule’ a bit of a hindrance. I think we may be getting away from the concept of laptop as a tool; using it is not an end in itself. If what needs to be done can be done more quickly and effectively without them, then turn ’em off.

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