Back in September, Maria posted on the phenomenon of laptops in the classroom, specifically students’ laptops running Facebook or e-mail or Ebay or whatever. She asked for my comment and I said, a la Jack Benny, “I’m thinking about it.”
Part of my reluctance was that at that point, I hadn’t really experienced this trend. Well, now I have. For some reason, this semester I’ve seen a 200 or 300 percent increase in classroom laptops–from one or two per 20 students in the past couple of years, to four or five or six now.
Much of the commentary on the issue, including an NPR report that aired a couple of days ago, has focused on the dopiness of websurfing while a professor whose substantial salary is paid in large part by your substantial tuition dollars is sending profound insights in your general issue. That’s not so much my problem. As Fredrick Lawrence, dean of George Washington University Law School, said on NPR, “Daydreaming did not start with laptops and passing notes did not start with instant messaging.” I used to doodle in class or glance at a magazine; the world did not end. Lizy websurfs while watching a movie she is intently interested in; she apparently absorbs all of it.
I actually have two problems. The first is active typing, rather than occasional clicking. Not only is it rude, but it’s incredibly distracting to my middle-aged mind. It’s why for a couple of years I have banned texting in the class. Of course, on one of the few times I admonished a student about this, it turned out she wasn’t texting but searching on her smart phone for a fact I had just said I was curious about.
The other thing is that while I understand students’ doing other stuff during a lecture, for the most part I don’t conceive of my classes as lectures. What I generally teach is the set of writing, research and thinking skills required for journalism or other kinds of writing. As a result, I want the classroom to be a somewhat dynamic place. My biggest challenge over the years is my sense that students come in with a passive rather than active attitude–thinking of themselves as content recipients and me as a content provider. My main task is to get them to participate mentally and vocally, and that will definitely not happen if they’re occupied with the screen in their lap.
Rest assured, I am not tempted to reproduce the YouTube clip where a professor smashes a laptop.
Nor do I want to spend the time figuring out how to block wifi in the classroom, as some profs have apparently done. (And anyway, there is no way to block solitaire.)
But I am seriously thinking about banning laptops next semester. What do you think?
*For an amusing discussion of the origin of the question “Threat or Menace?” see this site.