Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Laptop Use in the College Classroom

There are some courses in the university where laptops are essential items for students in the class. My class is not one of them. Generally, my classes are lecture-oriented with a measure of discussion. If I need to refer to something on the internet, I use my laptop to connect and then flash the material on the screen at the front of the room with the boxlight projector.

I never really cared about laptop use until about 3 years ago. I started noticing that my students were not paying attention as well with their laptops open and that I was having to compete with Instant Messenger, Facebook, email, and a host of other distractions. One of our other religion classes also had a minor incident of a student visiting a website that was a bit offensive to his fellow students.

At this point I decided to implement a policy (stated in my syllabus) that forbids use of electronic devices in my classes. This includes cell phones, mp3 players, iPods (amazing that I had a student once listening to her iPod while I was lecturing!). Of course, I do allow for laptops and recording devices if a student has a special need for its use.

This article in the Chronicle of Higher Education caught my attention today. It seems to confirm what I have suspected for some time now; that students make better grades if they leave the laptops closed and pay attention to the lecture.


Students Stop Surfing After Being Shown How In-Class Laptop Use Lowers Test Scores
Professors increasingly frustrated by students who use laptops for non-class activities—like updating their Facebook pages—may be heartened by news from the University of Colorado at Boulder. A professor there has found that educating students about the negative effect that frivolous laptop use has on their performance reduces class time spent going walkabout on the Web.

Diane Sieber, an associate professor, teaches writing and ethics to engineering undergraduates. She told the Boulder Daily Camera newspaper that last semester, she identified 17 students in one of her classes who were using laptops most frequently. After the first test, she told them that they did 11 percent worse, on average, than their peers who did not have their faces in their computers as much.

Lo and behold, the number of laptop-nosed students dropped to a half dozen, and the test scores of those who stopped using their computers during class went up.
Ms. Sieber says she also tries to tell students about the effects their behavior has on others in the class. Students “ask their classmates, ‘Please don’t watch movies on your computer, because if I’m behind you I can’t focus,’” she told the newspaper.

As the number of wireless-enabled classrooms increases—at Boulder it has gone from about 15 percent to about 85 percent in the last several years, according to the report—the laptop-related challenges facing the people up at the front of the room has gone up as well. Several law-school professors, The Chronicle has reported, have banned laptops from their classrooms. Laptop-free zones have been ordered by law-school instructors at Florida International, Georgetown, and Harvard Universities, and the Universities of Michigan and Wisconsin.

But other instructors find bans hard to enforce, and also find that Web access can enrich classroom discussions. A recent survey of 29,000 students at 85 law schools supports this notion. It may be that treating students as grown-ups and letting them see for themselves what helps and what hurts them in class, as Ms. Sieber has done, results in students who make smart decisions. —Josh Fischman


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