Banning Laptops in Class is the Wrong Answer

Recent articles by Valerie Strauss (@valeriestrauss) in the Washington Post and Dan Rockwell (@Leadershipfreak) in the New Yorker pander to the insecurities of college instructors and ignore research showing that web applications designed to invite participation can lead to improved engagement in class.  I’ve been a professor at a research university for over 35 years and can say with some confidence that students have always had the ability to lose focus in class.  Students, when bored, will daydream, read the newspaper, stare out the window or find any number of other ways to disengage. The laptop just adds another option.

We have three choices when confronted with the challenge of students being distracted by laptop use. We can ban their use, ignore their use or use tools on the laptop that deliberately engage the students in the learning goals of the course. I argue the first two are ridiculous responses.

Philosophically one must ask why are we concerned about students being distracted. As the students must still pass whatever learning assessments we offer isn’t it on them to learn time management skills sufficient to be successful? They need to learn these skills sooner or later so why not in college? Is the issue that we’re worried about their learning or is it that their distraction is a reflection of how unengaging is our teaching?

With the support of the National Science Foundation I have been studying this issue for a few years. My interest is whether tools can be designed to promote participation in class, and especially large classes, where such opportunities have been rare. I use a web-based tool that allows students to take notes, answer questions, ask questions and indicate when they’re confused.

What my group found first was the ability for all to ask questions dramatically increased student participation alone as now even students who are reluctant to ask questions verbally (often female students and students for whom English is not their first language) are asking questions at a rate at or above the rate for male students and the fraction of students asking questions has increased to over 50% of students.

Second, we found that students reported feeling far more engaged in the material because they had more opportunities to participate. If you give students more opportunities to participate our results show they do. Technology facilitates the creations of multiple ways to engage students during class.

Third, the analytics of what students are doing in class can be related to they learning outcomes. Our research shows that mining the patterns of participation provide predictive tools for student understanding that can be used to focus feedback far earlier in the semester. Contrary to the arguments presented here we have a great deal of data showing that the laptops can increase engagement.

I don’t doubt that technology invites distractions (that’s precisely why I take a laptop to faculty meetings). The reality is that the onset of these devices is not going to stop and the dream that we can ban Internet-enabled devices from the classroom is foolish. The more important question is how can we use these devices to create more engaging learning environments.

 

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Large Courses Create an Uneven Playing Field

Opening day!  First class of the year! For many of us this is a time to redesign our lectures with an eye to improving how we present our material.  But lost in our efforts to develop the clearest explanations and illustrations is the reality that a large percent of the students in our classes are going to be reluctant to interact with us regardless how gifted the presentation.

Last year on opening day I asked my students in a survey:

“When I have questions in a large lecture, I am comfortable asking them verbally during class.”
Figure 1. Answers to question “When I have questions in class, I am comfortable asking them verbally” presented on first day of class.

Figure 1. Answers to question “When I have questions in class, I am comfortable asking them verbally” presented on first day of class.

and discovered (Figure 1) that only about 40% of the male students and fewer 25% of female students  answered either “Somewhat Agree”or “Strongly Agree.” This is striking for two reasons.  First, it implies that a minority of students will feel comfortable stopping class to ask a question. Second, it implies that teaching my course as a traditional lecture course creates an uneven playing field with female students less likely to participate equally in student inquiry.

In class I use Echo360’s Active Learning Platform that allows students to pose questions digitally during class on any mobile device. Student pose questions during class and either my teaching assistant answers these questions during class in a side channel or I answer them after class. Students see all the questions and answers but do not see who asked the question (but I do see who asked each question). Last semester in that same class this resulted in two remarkable changes.

Figure 2. Number of questions posed per capita as a function of gender.

Figure 2. Number of questions posed per capita as a function of gender.

  1. First we had 413 questions submitted over the semester. Now I’ve been teaching for over 36 years and in previous years when I asked verbally “Any questions?” I would rarely hear a sound. This is sobering as it implies I was probably confusing for the previous 35 years and didn’t appreciate how much.
  2. Second, and arguably more important, the number of questions posed per capita by female students was almost twice the rate as male students (Figure 2).

Victory! The playing field has been leveled.  Now all students can more comfortably participate in class when they have questions.

I imagine some will want to argue that students need to learn to speak up verbally in class. But many students arriving at college don’t feel confident about their abilities yet and are fearful of looking dumb in a large class. Some are first-generation students coming from smaller schools and are intimidated by the new environment. I argue that having the ability to pose questions gives all students the opportunity to see that their questions are no less ‘dumb’ as anyone else’s.

So, as you worry about the design of your course take a moment to consider how you can make it comfortable for ALL students to participate. A means to allow anonymous inquiry is a step in that direction.  It should not replace verbal discussion but, I argue, is a healthy alternative for those less comfortable which I suspect includes a number of populations like those for whom English is not their first language as well as the gender differences I’m seeing in my science class.

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