Enough with the “no laptops in classrooms” already

There has been a rash of “turn off the laptop” articles in various places in the educational media, but I think what has pushed me over the edge and motivated this post is Clay Shirky’s “Why I Just Asked My Students To Put Their Laptops Away” on Medium. In the nutshell, Shirky went to the no laptop camp because (he says) students can’t multitask and students are too easily distracted by the technology, particularly with the constant alerts from things like Facebook.

Enough already.

First off, while I am no expert regarding multitasking, it seems to me that there are a lot of different layers to multitasking (or perhaps it would make more sense to say attention on task) and most of us perform some level of multitasking all the time.  Consider driving. I think it’s always a bad idea to be texting while actually moving in traffic because, yes, that’s too much multitasking for most people. But how about texting or checking email or social media while at a long light? I do it all the time. Or how about talking on the phone? For me, it’s easy to talk on the phone while driving if I am using headphones or if I’m driving a familiar route in normal conditions. When I’m driving an unfamiliar route in bad weather or in heavy traffic, not so much.

Second, distraction and not paying a lot of attention in class isn’t exactly new. When I was in high school, I sat in the back of the room in that chemistry class I was required to take and I read paperbacks “hidden” under the table. Students used to pass these things called “notes” on paper. Students did and still do whisper at each other in distracting ways. As both a college student and as a college teacher (certainly as a GA way back when), I’ve been with/had students who were distracted by and multitasking with magazines, newspapers, other people, with napping, etc., etc.

I agree with Shirky and some of the articles he cites that what’s interesting and different about contemporary electronic devices generally and social media in particular is that these are designed to distract us, to break our concentration. I routinely experience the sort of instant and satisfying gratification suggested in the abstract of this article. But to suggest that teachers/professors can solve this attention problem by asking students to temporarily turn off their laptops and pay attention to the sage on the stage strikes me as both naive and egotistical.

So here are three tips for Clay and other would-be haters for how to mentally adjust to the inevitability of laptops in their classrooms.

Number one, stop lecturing so much. When professors take the “stand and deliver” approach to “teaching,” the laptops come out. And why shouldn’t they? In an era where anyone can easily record a video and/or audio of a lecture that can be “consumed” by students on their own time, why should they sit and pay attention to you droning on?

I realize this is easy for me to say since I teach small classes with 25 of fewer students, but there are lots of ways to break up the talking head in a large lecture hall class too. Break students into groups to ask them to discuss the reading. Ask students to take a moment to write about a question or a reading and then ask them to respond.  Require your students to discuss and respond. Use the time in class to actually do work with the laptops (individually and collaboratively) to do things. Just stop thinking that teaching means standing there and talking at them.

Number two, be more interesting. If as a teacher (or really, just a speaker) you are noticing a large percentage of students not paying attention and turning to laptops or cell phones or magazines or napping, there’s a pretty good chance you’re being boring. I notice this in my own teaching all the time: when my students and I are interested in a conversation or an activity, the laptops stay closed. When I start to drone on or it otherwise starts getting boring, I see the checks on Facebook or Twitter or ESPN Sports or whatever. I use that as a cue to change up the discussion, to get more interesting.

Number three, “Let it Go.” Because here’s the thing: there’s really nothing professors can do (at least in the settings where I teach) to completely eliminate these kinds of distractions and multitasking and generally dumb stuff that students sometimes do. Students are humans and humans are easily distracted. So instead of spending so much time demanding perfect attention, just acknowledge that most of us can get a lot done with a laptop open. If you as the teacher are not the center of the universe, it’ll be okay.

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