Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Laptops in classroom and lectures

More students are bringing laptops to class. More faculty are bringing laptops to talks. Is this good, bad, or ugly? Some points
  1. I was sitting in on the best teacher in my dept (Dave Mount) teaching an elective course (so students there wanted to be there) on how to write video games (a topic of interest). Many of the students in the class were using their laptops to surf the net.
  2. Another professor has banned laptops from his class. If a student claims they are taking notes on it, as 5 did, then he demands that they email him the notes (only 1 took him on it).
  3. Is this any different than students doodling or gazing out the window or other ways to distract themselves?
  4. Since attendence is not mandatory, why insist that they not have laptops? I am not asking this rhetorically--- I am tempted by the idea of banning laptops also.
  5. Professors at talks also bring their laptops. We have not developed a culture where this is considered rude. Not clear why we haven't.
  6. Are today's youth better at multi-tasking so that they can do two or more things at once, like surf the web and listen to a talk? Again, I ask this non-rhetorically.
  7. I have no strong opinons here, but I want you to write your so I can borrow them next time I am feeling argumentative.


  1. There are certainly legitimate uses for laptops in the classroom. (My wife won't let me take mine to church yet. I'm still working on that one, but it would be helpful in Sunday School.)

    I have found that the most restrictive professors were the worst ones who were offended if they didn't get 100% attention. My best teachers never worried about it because they commanded attention with their quality of teaching.

  2. I think ideally one would like a laptop to always be within reach and usable, just for internet reference and things like quick calculations or algorithms.

    I recall a lecture I once attended where the speaker couldn't remember a particular detail and got someone in the front row to check it online on their laptop while he continued the lecture, then looped back to them once they had clarification.

    That's the kind of thing I like.

    The kind of thing I don't like is kids playing World of Warcraft in a lecture. Then again, so long as they're not distracting other students it's entirely their own individual loss.

    I might make a point early in the course that if a student is going to turn up and not listen, not think about the lecture afterwards, or do something completely different while they are sitting in the room, then their time may well be better spent at home. It sounds patronising, but undergraduates often need these things pointing out. I may also throw in an anecdote about an Applied Analysis lecture I once attended and sat reading an architecture book throughout. It was a complete waste of my time, I may as well have been at home, because I certainly wasn't listening to the lecture (and should have been). I never brought the book to another lecture.

    Replace "architecture book" with laptop for today's generation?

  3. You need to relaaaxx, dude! Just because some of your students light up during class, doesn't mean they aren't, like, totally into whatever you're talking about. So maybe a few students sitting near them notice the smell and take a drag or two. Be cool, daddy-o! Today's youth have shorter attention spans, and can't be expected to sit still for hours on end. On the other hand, they are better at parallel processing, and ... whoa, I've got the munchies.

  4. As long as it is not disrupting other students, and not disrupting you (which it shouldn't if they sit far enough back), I think laptops in the classroom is ok. Who cares if they are surfing the web, the point is they can zone back in when the teacher covers something interesting (I do the same thing when attending a talk).

  5. Put me in the camp of "I don't mind, as long it's not bothering me or anyone else."

    I do think, though, that perhaps an occasional reminder to students that they may not be getting their money's worth (or their parents' money's worth) out of the lecture, and might end up missing things, if they use their laptop as a toy or an e-mail reader instead of as an aid to learning is completely appropriate.

  6. I feel that students coming to class with a laptop is better than not coming to class.

  7. For the class, do you want to have the students learn the optimal amount, and evaluate them on how much they learned, or do you just want to evaluate how much of a topic they can learn with a specific style of learning?

    Everyone learns differently and has different thresholds of attention and concentration. If all the students understand how they themselves best learn and have the discipline to learn best with a laptop available, then banning the laptops punishes them. It may help the undisciplined students, but shouldn't you be rewarding the disciplined students and punishing the undisciplined students, instead of the other way around?

    Even for the undisciplined, I would challenge the better off staying at home theory. It's only true if the person is 100% distracted, for 100% of the class. For many people, especially smart ones, many activities fail to occupy 100% of their attention. So even those undisciplined students are probably getting some value from being in class.

    As for people at talks not paying full attention, is the purpose of the talk for the attendees to learn, or is the purpose for the attendees to demonstrate their respect for the speaker. If it's the later, then talk attendance will drop and there will be the new problem, determining an ordering of faculty based on the attendance of their talks, to study the complexity of. If I need to get something done in the next hours that will only occupy 60% of my attention, but will take the full 2 hours, and there is an interesting talk that I might benefit from, even if I can't give it the full 75% of my attention that it could occupy then, should I skip the talk and just waste that unused 40% of my attention or should I try to optimize the utilization of my time and learn something?

    And as someone who needs to be fully engaged all the time. I can say that the random contemplation that not having distractions leads to almost always utilizes more attention then I actually have spare, and as such hurts the learning that is happening. And many of the physical distractions, like finger-tapping, that are really great at occupying just that bit that's spare, can be really distracting to others. So having minor computer related distractions available has on occasion helped me learn better.

  8. Re: "As long as it is not disrupting other students"
    Can it really be not distracting others?

    It's not easy for a student to not be distracted by a WoW game or a YouTube video on laptop screen next to (or in front of) him.

    Moving a calculus class to a TV bar would clearly be a bad idea. Bringing laptops into it is not quite as bad, but it's close.

  9. Banning anything is a bad idea. Causes resentment.
    I use the laptop to sometimes look up something or go back and forth on the powerpoint that the teacher is using. Or just to check my email when the class gets boring.

  10. What's better? A student with a laptop or a student sleeping (drool optional)?

  11. Although banning is bad, we must put some rules for those who decide to attend a class. I mean "as long as it is just him/her, it is personal, it is OK ..." is not correct. There are many things we don't and shouldn't permit at class, even though they satisfy the above condition.

    As long as we do not force students directly or indirectly to attend our classes, I think it is OK to put some rules for using laptops during class.

    One more thing, computers can be very inefficient for what you get from using them relative to the time we spend.

  12. If you have a problem with it, I think there are better ways than banning. Just make it a point to call on the students with laptops. This might not work well in a really big class, but really big classes seem like the place where laptops matter least.

  13. Although banning is bad, we must put some rules for those who decide to attend a class. I mean "as long as it is just him/her, it is personal, it is OK ..." is not correct. There are many things we don't and shouldn't permit at class, even though they satisfy the above condition.


  14. "The kind of thing I don't like is kids playing World of Warcraft in a lecture. Then again, so long as they're not distracting other students it's entirely their own individual loss."
    I dont agree! As a teacher it's your duty to make your class an environment where students that want to learn, can do it in the best conditions possible. A student looking at youtube or playing games *will* distract others. If he can't pretend listening to me and taking notes for 45 minutes then he's out of my class, he can either study at home or start a pgm carreer. I ban laptops, newspapers, chatting etc. I don't give any justification for it, it's a class not a democracy, if they're not happy, they don't come to my lectures period. The argument that you do the same during talks seems unvalid to me, it's not the same situation, they are students working for a degree and they need to pass an exam at the end of my lectures, whereas you already have a degree and there was no exam at the end of the talk.

  15. to #13: Why?

    Because attending a class has a main purpose, learning! (Assuming no one is forced to come.)
    If someone is attending the class, she/he should know why she/he is doing that. If some one wants to other things, which are interfering with the main purpose, there are lots of places to do them.
    Is it OK if I start playing WoW/BC during class?

  16. Usual rule in classes at my school. If you use a laptop then sit in the back. Spare the other students from looking at pictures of Britney Spears that you are browsing.

  17. I see two arguments in the comments for banning laptops in class:

    1. Laptops distract other students.

    2. Classes are for learning and we should force attending students to learn to the extent possible.

    I think I buy the first one (although it then applies to talks as well; the fact that there are no exams seems orthogonal to whether a laptop next to you can be distracted). However I haven't been convinced by argument 2. To anon 15: what do you mean by "OK"? Why should I care if you want to play WoW?

    In a class I was TAing a student was constantly coding or checking email, clearly not paying attention. But then suddenly he would ask some amazingly good questions, I never understood how that was possible!

  18. to #17:

    Not "forcing", it's their decision, if they come, they come for learning, if they don't, better get somewhere else.

    My argument is this: If they do not contribute to the learning process in any way, they can do what they are doing somewhere else, they don't need to come to class. That is if there is no positive effect of their presence on learning (themselves, other students, or teacher), then better not attend. You say if there is no negative effect, then let them do whatever they want.

    And I didn't said ban laptops, I said you can put some rules about what they can do with them.

  19. Give up.

    No, I'm serious. Every industry and every meeting is now attended by laptop toting students/workers/attendies. It will become more and more de regure. Furthermore, laptops will have more and more connectivity. Swimming against that tide will only make you tired.

    In days gone past you could not guarantee the lecture would be attended. You had to make it either compelling by being a good lecturer, or make it necessary by testing students on the presented material.

    Today is no different except that students will be able to focus on the lecture or not as it becomes more or less compelling and necessary. And they'll be able to do it on the fly. And while communicating to other students in the room or around the world.

    Every lecturer, presenter, and manager is facing this battle today in every field, not just education.

    If you feel that people aren't getting the full value out of the lectures -- tackle that problem head on. Test them on the material they should be learning. Give them assignments that require the material. Or, better yet, try to be a bit more interesting than their friends latest FaceBook post. You're right there in the room with them, you have the upper hand, use it.

  20. Here is a student's take (mine) on why we want laptops in class.

    If the class is reviewing a topic I already understand -- homework problems I got or every class's mandatory review of induction -- or if a teacher is notorious for telling stories during class, I am most likely to whip out my computer to check email or read news. In one particularly hectic semester, this may have saved my sanity by freeing up some extra leisure time outside of class. When we get back on topic to something I'm not strong in, I usually close the computer and take notes.

    If a professor informally brings up an unfamiliar topic or acronym, I like to look up a quick definition so I can get the most out of it. If Without a computer, I would usually move on with less understanding rather than interrupt class to ask the professor.

    I don't watch videos in class and try to avoid other distracting things, though I do often type an email or two.

    As a CS/math student, I never used a laptop during a math class (nor did anyone else), but often used one during CS classes (as did many others). This is partly explained by awkwardly small desks in math classes and convenient tables with outlets in CS classes. I think it is also a culture of indispensability of computers to CS people.

    Computers in slow-moving classes help make the time more productive for a busy student. In one such class, the teacher had a strict ban on all computers in class, and the feeling of wasted time led me to stop attending altogether.

    Overall, I think computers are a useful supplement to the classroom, but there is a level of respect to others which should always be maintained.

  21. (apologies if this gets posted twice -- I tried to post something similar last night, and it didn't seem to go through)

    On the first day of class, I tell students that they are allowed to use laptops only if they are added to the "laptop-allowed" list. To get added to that list, they have to write a short essay (about a page and a half) on how they will be using the laptop during class time, and how it will enhance their learning experience.

    This approach has worked well for me over the past few years.

    I also like the idea of asking students to e-mail any notes/code written on the laptop to me after class. I haven't tried it yet, though.

  22. But, if laptops were banned during class, when would I read this blog?

  23. cents 1: clearly laptops can be beneficial in a classroom, as well as derogatory. i would want to make it clear to students that you prefer they pay attention, and that if someone else's laptop activities were distracting them to please speak up, either to you the instructor or to the offender. if students really feel that your class is so terrible that they must distract themselves with WoW, or so busy they must use your precious class time for email, then maybe they should consider switching majors, or reducing their extracurricular activities. or perhaps they could have constructive criticism for mending the problem. i would expect it is best to outline such a policy in the syllabus. otherwise, if no one is bothered, then no one is bothered. if you yourself are bothered, you can mention it also, we are all adults after all.

    cents 2: also, part of the reason i bought a laptop was a dream of looking up all of the stuff that i do not know about that the speakers reference, though i have not attended any conferences since i bought it. however i do still look forward to utilizing this unprecedented resource when i do attend more conferences. i really hope that we do not develop a culture of disrespect in such instances.

  24. The Freakonomics blog weighs in, only a couple of weeks late:


  25. http://weblog.fortnow.com/2008/04/laptops-in-

    That should be.