Tuesday, March 09, 2010

24; Ban on Laptops in the Classroom?

So, after a fairly lengthy post yesterday, I realize that I really don't have much today. Somehow it's always a lot easier to post on Mondays, after I've had c ouple of days off over the weekend to accumulate a bit of material. It seems like I could learn some sort of lesson from that, but..... probably not gonna happen.

Last night I ate dinner with Ryan and Jamie at Madam Mam's, watched a new episode of The Big Bang Theory (the episode was okay, but it wasn't my favorite), and watched 24. I'm not sure why I keep watching 24. Well, I guess I know- it's just a really fast paced thrill ride. The plotlines just keep becoming more and more ridiculous. (I like the fact that they brought Katee Sackhoff to the show this season, but the whole subplot with her secret criminal background and parolee ex-boyfriend has been pretty darn ridiculous. Apparently CTU, the nation's foremost counterintelligence agency, does the world's worst job at running basic criminal background checks of its employees. You think they would have tightened up security a bit after the entire place got blown up in a previous season...)
Anyway, the plotlines on 24 just keep getting more and more outlandish, but I keep watching, anyway, because there's just about no other show on TV that does as good a job at keeping me drawn in for a full hour of TV the way that 24 does. I think it's mostly because of the whole "realtime" format of the show. It just keeps things moving along, keep the tension sustained, and doesn't give you a whole ton of time to think about the plot until the episode is over. Anyway, it's like TV crack- it gets you revved up for a short while, but then afterward the whole experience leaves you feeling sort of stupid and cheap.

There's a sort of interesting article in the Washington Post today about a recent move by professors to ban laptop computers from their college classrooms. Universities including Georgetown (yes, including its law school), George Washington, American University, William and Mary, and the University of Virginia have all begun to make recent moves toward banning laptops in their classrooms. Professors say that students who attend lectures with their laptops simply become too distracted to make their attendance at a lecture worthwhile. Initial studies look like they're starting to bear this sentiment out, with 80% of students reporting that they became more focused after being required to stick to a pen and paper note taking format and test results indicating that students who used laptops in the classroom tend to produce results more in line with students who skip classroom lectures altogether than with students who attend lectures and take notes by hand.
I guess I'm not all that surprised by this move. By the time I was graduating from law school, we didn't really have widely available wireless internet access yet, but laptops were already well establsihed on the scene. And back then, even without the distractions provided by the internet, I remember watching the students with laptops as they played card games and played first person shooters during the middle of lectures (which I didn't really understand- I mean, why go at all?). Nowadays, with the ability to chat with your friends, read magazines and newspapers, check sports scores, play games, and so and and so forth, I can see how students might not really focus on a sinlg eword that's said throughout an entire lecture. I have a hard time concentrating, myself, at times, but I have some friends and family members with some really short attention spans, and I think that the use of a laptop during a lecture would just be an absolutely crippling distraction for some of them.
In a broader sense, this whole laptop in the classroom thing just brings to mind something that I've thought of many times before. In essence, we need to develop a whole new set of customs and etiquette for dealing with communication and computer devices in our wireless, digital age. We've started to move this direction already. Many stores have signs that warn customers not to be on their cell phones while ordering. My local movie theater has warnings before the movie that attempt to not only discourage people from talking during the movie, but which also ask them to stay off their cell phones and to refrain from texting, tweeting, or otherwise using their mobile devices in a way that would distract people (with brightly lit display screens in a darkened theater).
So I guess I just see the laptop computer ban as a sort of extension of this. At most schools students aren't necessarily required to attend lectures, but it just seems like if people are going to bother to attend, they might as well have the common courtesy to actually listen to lectures (or at least pretend to listen to lectures) instead of just screwing around on their computers. It must get a little annoying for professors to make the effort to give a lecture when you know that most of your students are just checking out Facebook or playing video games.
More importantly, people just don't learn very well when they've got lots of distractions. They might think they're "multitasking" (which I never really bought in the first place), but the research is beginning to show that people just aren't very good at learning new things when they're not fully engaged and concentrating on a single subject. Predictably, many students have been pitching a fit about the move to ban laptops in some classrooms, claiming that instructors just don't understand the lifestyle and mindset of the new digital generation, but studies continue to show that, by and large, students who are distracted or engaged in divided attention tasks or multitasking tend to perform much more poorly when it comes to knowledge recall and analysis. I have no doubt that students think that they can effectively and efficiently do two or three things at a time, but the reality for many of these students might just be that they're so used to constant distractions and overstimulation that they have no reference point as to how it feels to function in any other manner. These students are just claiming that they've learned to process information differently, but research results tend to indicate that they might just be getting used to having short attention spans and an underdeveloped ability to focus and concentrate.
So we need to develop new norms and social practices for dealing with these situations. Would it really be the end of the world if students had access to computers at all other times of the day but had to set them aside long enough to concentrate for an hour at a time during class? If that seems like too much of a sacrifice to some students, maybe those are the sort of people who ought to just cut out the classroom lecture scenario altogether and start taking some online distance learning classes instead.

Well, I guess that's about it.

Hope you guys are doing okay!


Ryan S. said...

I asked the CTO of a university where I worked about the "laptop in the classroom" issue, and his response was that instructors needed to be as entertaining as what was distracting students.

This same guy also told me students should be sending in their homework by taking digital pictures and emailing in a JPEG, so I didn't really buy anything the guy had to say.

But having worked in universities, yes, its a problem. I would even see grad students who wouldn't stay on task.

Unfortunately, a lot of societal changes seem to require more stick than carrot to become common quickly (don't use your phone here or you won't receive service, etc...). And certainly with college students who don't care about History 101, it may be that wireless or laptops are taken away.

The argument was often posited as "well, they're paying for it, so if they don't get anything out of it, that's their problem", but it ignores that laptops can be distracting to other students, and that students don't have whatever rights they feel entitled to when they walk in a classroom.

I know this makes me sound like an old man, but sitting on campus everyday is a constant reminder that college students are not as mature or logical as we all like to believe we were at that age.

Jason said...

Uggh. You need a new CTO. hat sounds like a man who just can't be bothered to think about the things that are coming out of his mouth.
Anyway, I sort of like the thought that university classrooms, labs, and lecture halls might become the last bastion of pen and paper writing. It may come to pass that someday writing things by hand turns out to be one of those things that only well educated, intellectual elites engaged in because it's a skill that they had to cultivate through the many years of their education. wouldn't that be weird?