At dinner last night with a colleague and former students who are now in law school I asked their thoughts about classroom laptop use. One said she could not imagine getting through a law school class without using Facebook and browsing the web. She also said one of her professors banned laptops from class, which made students grumble but required that she pay attention and resulted in her learning more in that class. She is among the best class participators and all-around students I have taught in recent years, not inclined as a undergraduate to sit back and let others do the work. The other former student, who attends a different law school, had similar comments. Perplexing. She knows she learns better without the distraction but can’t imagine not indulging it. Her recommendation echoed what I’d heard earlier from other students: cold call, and shame the unprepared and inattentive.
My son Nate sent a timely article from Inside Higher Ed titled “What They Are Really Typing”. It reports on two studies undertaken to determine what laptop-using students are actually doing during class.
In one study, a St. John’s University law professor hired research assistants to peek over students’ shoulders from the back of the lecture hall. In the other, a pair of University of Vermont business professors used computer spyware to monitor their students’ browsing activities during lectures.
The authors of both papers acknowledged that their respective studies had plenty of flaws (including possibly understating the extent of non-class use). But they also suggested that neither sweeping bans nor unalloyed permissions reflect the nuances of how laptops affect student behavior in class. And by contrasting data collected through surveys with data obtained through more sophisticated means, the Vermont professors also show why professors should be skeptical of previous studies that rely on self-reporting from students — which is to say, most of them.
The Vermont study found that-
[t]he average student in the Vermont study cycled through a whopping 65 new, active windows per lecture, nearly two-thirds of which were classified as “distractive.” But only one type of distractive application appeared to have any effect on how well students ended up doing on assessments: instant messaging. Students who frequently checked e-mail and surfed non-course-related sites did not appear to sweat for their sins on homework, quizzes, tests, or the final exam. High rates of instant-messaging activity, however, showed significant correlations with poor performances on all but one test during the semester.
[S]tudents [also] tended to be wildly inaccurate when reporting how frequently they used [instant messaging]. In addition to using computer spyware, Kraushaar and Novak surveyed students to test how reliably they could asses their own laptop activity. Forty percent of students whom the spyware caught using instant-messaging applications in class told the professor they had never done so.
The other study reported that “more than half of second- and third-year law students who came to class with laptops used the computers for non-class purposes more than half the time, compared to a mere 4 percent of first-year students.” The authors could not explain why this is so, but suggested 2L’s and 3L’s “were more confident, or more focused on finding jobs, or for some other reason” were more inclined to engage in inappropriate laptop use.
More to think about. I still don’t know how I will address these issues.
May is when I reflect on the just-completed academic year. Today’s topic is frustration caused by students’ distracting classroom use of laptops, phones, and other gadgets. As described in a Globe story titled “Tangled in an Endless Web of Distractions,” it is not an isolated problem My “gadget ghetto” solution did not work because I did not follow through on monitoring usage. Wandering behind gadget users while teaching does not fit my classroom traffic pattern. I cannot give up. I need another fix. I don’t want to ban laptops because it would punish students who use them appropriately and effectively. I doubt I could convince the school to mount giant mirrors along the back and side classroom walls, and if they did I’d have to see myself teach. One friend–a former student who works for Google–says I should ban them. Period. Google, the world’s information organizer and quintessential Internet company, has no-laptop meetings. “Let them take notes the old-fashioned way. On paper.” One student said I should shame students by telling them mid-class to stop texting and put their phones away. I’ve done that a few times, but it doesn’t capture students peering at laptops who could be taking verbatim notes or trading stocks. (I could use it, though, on students looking at their screens and laughing while I’m discussing agency law.) Another said I should cold-call people using laptops to see if they are paying attention. I’ve done that, but clearly not often enough to instill universal fear of public embarrassment.
That might work. One more thing to add to the FAQs.
Recently I agreed to allow a high school senior who is coming to SMG next fall to sit in on a class. The visit was arranged through our Undergraduate Program Office as part of our recruitment of admitted students. I’ve hosted many such students eager, or mildly curious, to experience a college class. This student asked if his friend, visiting CAS on a similar trip, could attend as well. I said of course. I greeted him by name before class, introduced myself to her, and directed them to seats in the back row. They sat, and then they cuddled. Inappropriate, but not serious, and they separated as class began. Five minutes later I looked in their direction. She was bent over her phone, thumbs flying on the keyboard. I directed to the boy what I intended to be a meaningful look–it’s meaning was “tell your girlfriend to put down the damn phone!”–but my message didn’t register. I continued with class, asking questions to generate discussion, shooting more looks his way. No response. A few minutes later I again looked their way. Now he was bent over his phone, thumbs flying on the keyboard. I stopped talking. I stared at them. Silence. I said “the two of you–stop playing with your phones!” All eyes turned in their direction. They looked up, stored their phones, but did not apologize. They say woodenly for another 15 minutes, then got up and left.
Breathtakingly rude. If only I had the power to revoke admission.
Some time ago I wrote about the use of laptops in the classroom, a post prompted by law school professors banning laptops because of their deleterious effect on class discussion. I said then I would not ban them. In my pre-computer college and law school days I never lacked for classroom distractions. I could miss an entire lecture armed with nothing but a pen and paper. A laptop is more engrossing than a surreptitious game of hangman, I know, but boring classes are the biggest culprit.
A reader who recalled that discussion sent me a link to Surfing the Class from the May 13 New York Times, which notes that the the U Chicago Law School dean “has recently announced an end to classroom surfing.” Henceforth laptops are only to be used to take notes during class. That oughta stop it. Maybe he can also announce an end to people speaking too loudly on cellphones in restaurants or on public transit.
I think classroom laptop use is more prevalent in law school than in the BU School of Management. Rarely do more than ten percent of students use a laptop in class, and usually the number is less. My attitude has not changed. As long as it does not distract either their classmates or me, it is the laptop user’s choice to spend their class time and tuition reading email or booking flights for spring break. My job is to make the classroom experience so interesting that they don’t want to miss it–which, I’ll hasten to add, is a statement of aspiration, not a description of reality. Law students are adults and, in my view, are responsible for their own choices. Undergraduate students are, initially, not as adult as they would like to believe but have earned the title by their senior year, for chronological reasons if no other.
If students complained that someone’s in-class web browsing detracted from their ability to pay attention then I would banish the laptop users to the back row. In ten years of teaching I’ve received only one complaint about laptop use in the classroom, from a student distracted by keyboard noise. I required all students using laptops to sit together one side of the classroom, and checked periodically with nearby students whether the laptop ghetto distracted them. It didn’t, and everyone was happy.
Maybe this fall I’ll be preemptive and designate the back row for laptop users, unless they promise not to distract others by browsing.