Laptops in the classroom and multi-tasking

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The case for banning laptops in the classroom is a blog by Dan Rockmore in the New Yorker on the surprising proposal by one of the lecturers to ban  laptops in programming classes  at Dartmouth.  I say ‘surprising’, but it doesn’t actually surprise me, since I’ve noticed that of all people, programmers and other exceptional thinkers in just about any field tend to regard notebooks or conversation as a more appropriate tool than computers for doing conceptual work (see earlier posts of mine praising [real] notebooks and even record cards).

But the main point about laptops in class is that they’re distracting. The message of one study on the subject “aligns pretty well with the evidence that multitasking degrades task performance across the board.” What I like about the guy that proposed the ban, apart from the fact that this blog adds to my growing list of articles busting the myth of multitasking is that he’s not blaming the youth of today for being distractible, but acknowledges that laptops distract him as well, so why would it be any different for the people he teaches? 

At a conference last year I looked round the lecture room during one of the presentations, and noticed that many of the big-name researchers, due to give papers later in the conference, had their laptops open. Some were blogging, some were tweeting, some were rejigging their PowerPoint presentations, others were editing papers, checking emails or on Facebook. One was googling a term that the presenter had just used, another was looking up the book that they had just referred to on a slide. One was checking the football results, another was actually watching a game. Oh yes, and one was organizing his albums in iPhoto.

Remember, these are professors I’m talking about (in the colloquial sense of high-end academics), not adolescent undergrads. Coming from the ballet world where a teacher wouldn’t let a bunch of 6-year olds behave like this, I was pretty appalled. But what appalled me was the lack of leadership and sense of collective responsibility. I wanted the conference organizer or the person chairing the session to stand up and tell the room to get a grip, put their laptops away, and give the person at the front 20 minutes of their attention for god’s sake. As for tweeting and blogging about conferences while you’re in them, isn’t this a form of Facebook-style snap-and-post narcissism? Look at me! I was there! I heard this! It was really cool! But while you were typing that, your focus necessarily drifted from the next few sentences, if it was ever there much in the first place.

I don’t think it’s the fault of the lecture as a form. I like lectures. People who speak well can inspire. The talk I attended by Ken Robinson  eight years ago still inspires me, and remains a model to aspire to. But it’s a relational thing – lectures depend on the attention of the audience as well as the attention-grabbing skills of the lecturer.  And if lecturers themselves can’t keep their minds off football, funny kitten pictures or email, then don’t expect students to fare any better.

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One thought on “Laptops in the classroom and multi-tasking

  1. Franklin Chen

    I have mixed feelings about the use of laptops (or phones or tablets :-)), as one who attends as well as gives talks. On the one hand, I personally almost always bring my laptop to a talk, in order to take notes. My handwriting is barely legible and slow, so it is truly optimal to use a laptop. I try to stick to taking notes, but also often look up unfamiliar terms or references; this often helps immensely (rather than permanently getting lost when hearing about something unfamiliar to me). When I start checking email or something, that’s a sign that the talk has gotten really bad and I am lost. I do feel guilty when that happens, but am not sure what to do: just walk out the door, or stay there and get something done. Because some talks really are horrifically bad and after a certain point are a total waste of time. On the other hand, I have been to some talks that are so fantastic that I shut my laptop because I would miss the good stuff just by typing anything at all.

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