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It’s not the laptop, it’s the web.

A new A.P. story about differing views on laptops in the classroom (and some professors’ efforts to bar them) prompt Gordon Smith at Conglomerate to offer more reflections on the matter (as well as great links to a thread at Althouse). My views are strongly similar to Gordon’s. Blawgs have hit the topic quite a bit this academic year; you can dip in to earlier exchanges at OrinKerr or CoOp.

At the end of fall semester 2005, a few of us here at Lewis & Clark surveyed about 350 students in a variety of classes to gather some data about (a) how students use laptops in class and (b) the degree to which they find others’ use of laptops distracting or annoying. I’ll summarize some of what we found later. For now, let me pass along a short piece I wrote a few weeks ago, at the request of the student semesterly humor paper here at L&C known as Letter of the Law. The piece is after the jump.

Surf’s Up? Sadly, Yes.

First things first: If I could flick a switch to turn off internet access in the classroom during class time, I would. But I can’t flick such a switch today, and I have no reason to believe I will be able to do so any time soon. (We simply haven’t configured our campus computer network in this way, though some schools have.)

Don’t get me wrong. I think a laptop is a great tool. If laptops had been a bit cheaper when I was a law student back in the early 1990s, I’m quite sure I would have used one in class. Indeed, when I attend an academic conference, I usually bring a laptop with me and sometimes take notes with it during a panel discussion. More often, however, I use it around the conference hotel to connect to the internet … to use Lewis & Clark’s webmail client, to read the New York Times on line, or to check out a new blog someone has mentioned. As those who’ve taken one my classses know, each class has a supporting web page, and I distribute virtually all class materials through that web page. In short, I’m no technophobe.

So, if I like and depend on the internet so much, why would I turn off internet access during class time if I could? For much the same reason that, as Justice Holmes is often quoted as saying, the right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.

When you use a laptop in class to surf the internet – reading newspapers and blogs, checking out sports scores and playing video clips (even silently) – you go beyond getting yourself a bit of relief from classroom boredom. You impose distractions on others. Taking notes on a white screen, or putting up your own version of a PowerPoint slide that’s up at the front of the room, is not all that distracting … especially where the standard for “distracting” is set by flashing screens showing eBay auctions or intense play at the latest bit of downloadable fun from Yahoo! Games.

I’m responsible for providing a classroom environment where people can learn without gratuitous hindrances. Naturally, when I worry about such hindrances, my mind turns to web surfing. Wouldn’t turning off internet access be overkill? It’s an important question, and I think the answer is “no.” Here’s why: The costs of turning of internet access would be very small, and the benefits would comfortably outweigh them. On the cost side, students would occasionally be unable to engage in helpful class-related activities that the internet would enable (e.g., looking up a statutory section, or the definition of a word, mentioned in class discussion). Students would also feel displeasure at being forced back upon less flashy, and less distracting-to-others, forms of amusement (like pen-and-paper doodling, or crossword puzzles … both of which are, admittedly, so 1993). On the benefit side, the students sitting behind laptop users would be spared the now-ample doses of flashing screens and other distracting visual clutter. They would learn more, and perhaps contribute more to others’ learning too. In a classroom setting, that learning benefit is paramount.

Can’t the students who are distracted simply take care of themselves? It’s an attractive notion, and I think it likely solves some of the major problems that exist today. Students who find others’ web surfing truly distracting can balance that against their seating preferences and, perhaps, sit closer to the front of the room (where they will see fewer screens). This spring, I encouraged students in my patent law class to keep distraction avoidance in mind when they decided where to sit, and to move to a different seat if need be. All the same, web surfers are inflicting more gratuitous costs on others … this time, seating management costs. It’s not as good a fix as an off switch for classroom internet use, but I’ll take what I can get.

The off switch doesn’t exist here. So, the surf’s up, and will stay up. I ask one thing: Please try not to splash you classmates.

8 thoughts on “It’s not the laptop, it’s the web.”

  1. Perhaps each class should have a live chat running and projected at the front of the class. Then no matter which distraction grabs them, it’s relevant. Also they could post questions rather than distract themselves with raising their one of the typing hands to get attention or trying to keep it in mind to ask later. I bet you’d get more and better questions. If a student’s login is always beside the question, then you can still address and interact with that student socratically even if the initial spark is online. Also the online questions that remain unanswered you could answer online after class.

  2. Joe,
    I haven’t read all of the commentary on this, but most of what I have read puzzles me, in the following respect: There is an unspoken premise that what the students are “doing” in the classroom is functionally independent of what the teacher is “doing.” Students may be taking notes, or IM’ing or surfing, or napping; they are in class “to learn,” and they are succeeding or failing at that task. The teacher is lecturing, or pursuing Q&A, but by all accounts “teaching,” which means “trying to create an environment that’s conducive to learning” and conveying certain information to the students. I don’t see much commentary that proceeds from the premise that students and teacher form an interdependent classroom system (which becomes an extra-classroom system, if you get a little fancy) that’s designed for information exchange and circulation.
    That sounds both awfully abstract and idealistic. What difference might this make? The fact that some students surf or IM or ruthlessly transcribe every word (assuming that this is a bad thing) is more than merely a form of feedback on the teacher’s ability to hold their interest. It’s a form of raw material for teaching. The students are teaching the teacher; the teacher can use it to teach the students. This doesn’t work well if one’s preferred teaching style is the lecture, but it does work well if the teacher is regularly and enthusiastically engaged with what the students are actually doing — not simply with what the (responsive) students are saying. So, I don’t ban laptops in my classrooms, partly because I share the objection that this sort of policy is a bit paternalistic, but mostly because I’ve found that if I actually pay attention to the students who are plugged in (and yes, without much effort it’s usually easy to tell who they are, even if I’m not looking over their shoulders), I can mine information that I can work into the class as a whole. I listen for murmurs and watch for finger-pointing that indicates that someone has surfed to a website or received a message of possible interest. I call the student out, not with hostility, but with an invitation: share what you found. With me. If it’s on topic, I work it into the class conversation. If it’s off topic or inappropriate, I can joke and move on (or criticize and move on). In either case, I’ve forged a tiny bond, or planted a seed, that I can use later. In both cases, the student is part of the teaching process, not simply there as a learner.

  3. Mike,
    I’ll take your experience (which I thank you for sharing) as a way to make lemonade. I can’t shake the feeling, however, that ubitquitous web access during class is a lemon.
    To be clear, I don’t ban laptops in class. I welcome them, although not (at least, not yet) for the “teaching moment” reason you describe. (I don’t mind the picket fence problem, and I think students should use whatever reasonable notetaking technology they think best.)
    Next fall, I’ll give your method a try. At the moment, it strikes me as a little too “meta” for my personal taste, but it’s surely worth a shot.

  4. Joe,
    Well, you know I’m a theory guy, but it’s easy to leave the theory at home. Maybe ‘go with the flow’ is less meta but sends a similar message. I can’t shake a different feeling: resistance is futile!

  5. Speaking as a student in law school classes, I have a hard time with laptops in class. Not because people get online, but because they do extraordinarily distracting things. Here are some examples of what I have seen: Playing videogames — ranging from Civ4 to Nintendo emulators to flash games to whatever — watching movies (someone in front of me watched most of Batman Begins with the subtitles on), playing pinball and POUNDING the keyboard. Those things really bother me and distract me from either an interesting lecture or discussion in which I’d like to participate. None of them hinge on students getting online.

    It doesn’t matter the teacher’s style — having had Mike Madison, he does a good job with incorporating online activity into the class lecture where appropriate — or the quality of the instruction or material because many students screw off no matter what. And their actions can and will distract other students. My point, ultimately, is that internet access isn’t the lynchpin of student attention span. And there’s only so much that the professor can do. Frankly, as a student, I’d rather see laptops banned outright from the classroom.

  6. I think its the matter of personal choice. Some r comfortable with it and others r not.Laptops should not be totally banned from the classrooms. Technology can be put to best use if the students r at ease with it. Otherwise it don’t make any sense.

  7. Laptops bring with them not just web alone but other distracting things also. Then whats the use of it when its distrubing students attention. But its depends from person to person in which way they r making the use. Its all upto them.

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