Instead of banning laptops, what if we mandated them?

Oy. Laptops are evil. Again.

This time, it comes from “Leave It in the Bag,” an article in Inside Higher Ed, reporting on a study done by Susan Payne Carter, Kyle Greenberg, and Michael S. Walker, all economists at West Point (PDF). This has shown up on the WPA-L mailing list and in my various social medias as yet another example of why technology in the classrooms is bad, but I think it’s more complicated than that.

Mind you, I only skimmed this and all of the economics math is literally a foreign language to me. But there are a couple of passages here that I find interesting and not exactly convincing to me that me and my students should indeed “leave it in the bag.”

For example:

Permitting laptops or computers appears to reduce multiple choice and short answer scores, but has no effect on essay scores, as seen in Panel D. Our finding of a zero effect for essay questions, which are conceptual in nature, stands in contrast to previous research by Mueller and Oppenheimer (2014), who demonstrate that laptop note-taking negatively affects performance on both factual and conceptual questions. One potential explanation for this effect could be the predominant use of graphical and analytical explanations in economics courses, which might dissuade the verbatim note-taking practices that harmed students in Mueller and Oppenheimer’s study. However, considering the substantial impact professors have on essay scores, as discussed above, the results in panel D should be interpreted with considerable caution. (page 17)

The way I’m reading this is for classes where students are expected to take multiple choice tests as a result of listening to a lecture from a sage on the stage, laptops might be bad. But in classes where students are supposed to write essays (or at least more conceptual essay questions), laptops do no harm. So if it’s a course where students are supposed to do more than take multiple choice tests….

After describing the overall effects of students performing worse when computing technology is available, Carter, Greenberg, and Walker write:

It is quite possible that these harmful effects could be magnified in settings outside of West Point. In a learning environment with lower incentives for performance, fewer disciplinary restrictions on distracting behavior, and larger class sizes, the effects of Internet-enabled technology on achievement may be larger due to professors’ decreased ability to monitor and correct irrelevant usage.” (page 26)

Hmmm…. nothing self-congratulatory about that passage, is there?

Besides the fact that there is no decent evidence that the students at West Point (or any other elite institution for that matter) are on the whole such special snowflakes that they are more immune from the “harm” of technology/distraction compared to the rest of us simpletons, I think one could just as easily make the exact opposite argument. It seems to me that is is “quite possible” that the harmful effects are more magnified in a setting like West Point because of the strict adherence to “THE RULES” and authority for all involved. I mean, it is the Army after all. Perhaps in settings where students have more freedom and are used to the more “real life” world of distractions, large class sizes, the need to self-regulate, etc., maybe those students are actually better able to control themselves.

And am I the only one who is noticing the extent to which laptop/tablet/technology use really seems to be about a professor’s “ability to monitor and correct” in a classroom? Is that actually “teaching?”

And then there’s this last paragraph in the text of the study:

We want to be clear that we cannot relate our results to a class where the laptop or tablet is used deliberately in classroom instruction, as these exercises may boost a student’s ability to retain the material. Rather, our results relate only to classes where students have the option to use computer devices to take notes.   We further cannot test whether the laptop or tablet leads to worse note taking, whether the increased availability of distractions for computer users (email, facebook, twitter, news, other classes, etc.) leads to lower grades, or whether professors teach differently when students are on their computers. Given the magnitude of our results, and the increasing emphasis of using technology in the classroom, additional research aimed at distinguishing between these channels is clearly warranted.(page 28)

First, laptops might or might not be useful for taking notes. This is at odds with a lot of these “laptops are bad” studies. And as a slight tangent, I really don’t know how easy it is to generalize about note taking and knowledge across large groups. Speaking only for myself: I’ve been experimenting lately with taking notes (sometimes) with paper and pen, and I’m not sure it makes much difference. I also have noticed that my ability to take notes on what someone else is saying — that is, as opposed to taking notes on something I want to say in a short speech or something– is now pretty poor. I suppose that’s the difference between being a student and being a teacher, and maybe I need to relearn how to do this from my students.

This paragraph also hints at another issue with all of these “laptops are bad” pieces, of “whether professors teach differently when students are on their computers.” Well, maybe that is the problem, isn’t it? Maybe it isn’t so much that students are spending all of this time being distracted by laptops, tablets, and cell-phones– that is, students are NOT giving professor the UNDIVIDED ATTENTION they believe (nay, KNOWS) they deserve. Maybe the problem is professors haven’t figured out that the presence of computers in classrooms means we have to indeed “teach differently.”

But the other thing this paragraph got me to thinking about the role of technology in the courses I teach, where laptops/tablets are “used deliberately in classroom instruction.” This paragraph suggests that the opposite of banning laptops might also be as true: in other words, what if, instead of banning laptops from a classroom, the professor mandated that students each have a laptop open at all times in order to take notes, to respond to on-the-fly quizzes from the professor, and look stuff up that comes up in the discussions?

It’s the kind of interesting mini-teaching experiment I might be able to pull off this summer. Of course, if we extend this kind of experiment to the realm of online teaching– and one of my upcoming courses will indeed be online– then we can see that in one sense, this isn’t an experiment at all. We’ve been offering courses where the only way students communicate with the instructor and with other students has been through a computer for a long time now. But the other course I’ll be teaching is a face to face section of first year writing, and thus ripe for this kind of experiment. Complicating things more (or perhaps making this experiment more justifiable?) is the likelihood that a significant percentage of the students I will have in this section are in some fashion “not typical” of first year writing at EMU– that is, almost all of them are transfer students and/or juniors or seniors. Maybe making them have those laptops open all the time could help– and bonus points if they’re able multitask with both their laptop and their cell phones!

Hmm, I see a course developing….

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