Tuesday, May 12, 2009


It's hard to explain how I feel about laptops in the classroom. Timothy Burke has a post on the issue, and I replied in the comment thread a little, but my feelings on the issue are more complex than can be explained in comments.

I allowed laptops in the classroom at first. Then I discovered that Michael, who had a laptop, was sitting in the back row watching movies while I was teaching about literature. So I banned them for several years.

In the meantime, I started using the computer in the classroom more and more. During group work, I opened up a browser and welcomed students to come to the computer to look things up. As I moved from group to group, they'd ask questions, and I started turning on the projector and answering them, or showing clips (some of my students had never heard of John Wayne before! How am I supposed to discuss ideas about masculinity in the 1940s in relation to Death of a Salesman if they don't know who the 40s male icons are?). I show YouTube clips and bring up websites. I make all my appointments using Google Calendar. I let people use the Dictionary app on my iPod Touch (or on their own Touches). I used a Ning in my lit class to collect images, video clips, and even a map of Pershing Square from when I taught Chester Himes' "Lunching at the Ritzmore." I wanted them to see where the drifter, student, and black man were walking around, followed by the crowd and the police officer.

At a certain point, students in one class got so comfortable with me that they understood that I hated the texting but didn't mind additional info being raised, so Derek started using his smartphone for research during class discussions. He was pretty fast, and the other students didn't mind because it meant he was talking just a little bit less while researching. :)

We want our students not to be merely receptacles of information we give them in class, of course. We want them to be engaged. When I am exposed to new information, my brain explodes in really productive ways, and the energy transfer results in the generation of new knowledge. But sometimes that process is antithetical to the process of the classroom, which must be governed by a kind of consensus. One student can't run off on a tangent that, while educating him or her, may not benefit the rest of the class.

I find those opposed to bans on laptops in the classroom to be pedagogically teacher-centered, which may seem paradoxical, but hear (read?) me out. Deep in my heart, I don't care if students are texting or reading Facebook or doodling or daydreaming or even sleeping. When I'm in the groove of a discussion, and I have enough feedback from some students, I don't care what the others are doing. It's easier sometimes not to have to monitor the classroom for distracted students. I don't notice a lot of the distracted behaviors, in fact, unless I'm looking for them.

I only started to care about the texting etc. when students told me they didn't like it when other students did it. They told me that they thought other students who texted (or read Facebook or passed notes or slept) were disrespectful. And I realized that I am not the only person in the classroom. :) I know that sounds strange, but I hadn't thought about the impact of distracted students on other students. They resent those who are not paying attention. They are distracted by them. They breathe a sigh of relief when I call them out for talking to each other in class, because usually, at least one member of the pair didn't want to be rude and tell the instigator to be quiet. They want me to create a classroom environment that values learning, and they want not to be tempted by easy access to distractions.

I don't want to be their mother, so what I've started to do is explain the origin of my classroom "rules" I present each one as a problem. I validate the need of some people to behave in certain ways (getting up to use the bathroom; answering an important text) and the concerns of students who get distracted and bothered by other students' behaviors. In a way, I have to model for them (my students are usually first-year students) effective ways to express disapproval of distracting behaviors and control the classroom environment without having negative conflicts. Having been in a high school environment where the teacher is the enemy, they have to learn how to become partners with the college professor.

I'm almost done with the academic year and am thinking about next year. I have a community service project on social media that my fall class will be working on. However, I will ban latops at first. Then when we start the social media project, I'll raise the issue with the students and explain my reasons for banning laptops. I expect them to start connecting the dots and understanding that there is more to laptops/smartphones than just Facebook and texting. And that lesson may be more important than anything else I do in the class. We'll see.


Carl said...

Wendy, thanks for this. It did take me a moment to see your point about laptop permission being teacher-centered, but I actually know just what you mean about getting into the localized autism of a discussion and missing the disturbances at the fringes. I could quibble that a different kind of teacher-centric laptop ban has to do with the ego of wanting to be the center of attention, but this discussion is way beyond that.

What I've started to try to think about at Tim's place is how these 'distractions' might actually be turned to productive account. I'm not sure students are always best served by a narrow focus; pulling a bunch of stuff together on the fly is a terrific skill. Is that something we can recognize in the students who are wired for it and promote in those who aren't?

Libby said...

I've had a laptop ban in the past--I wasn't teaching classes where I thought they'd be useful, and they clearly were distracting to other students, not just the laptop user. I'm considering changing that this year based on the conversation you linked to, and your own post here, but if I did I'd do it in the way you describe, starting out with a discussion of the "rules" and why we have them, etc. Very helpful conversation!

Wendy said...

Carl, actually, I totally agree that banning laptops is/can be teacher-centric, and in fact that's the argument I've made to my students in the past. :) I usually mean it as a little self-deprecating, playing the diva-professor to lessen the sting of scolding someone.

"I'm not sure students are always best served by a narrow focus; pulling a bunch of stuff together on the fly is a terrific skill."

True. I've been doing more experiential learning/community service learning in order to work at these skills. Once in a CSL experience, we threw out our plan and started over again about 1/3 of the way through. It was exhilirating and absolutely terrifying. :)

Libby, if I could know that all students who had laptops in the classroom were using them for something even tangentially related to what we were talking about in the classroom, I would. But I also know that at yesterday's Faculty Awards, I pulled out my Touch to check my e-mail (for a good reason--I needed to find out if my son's soccer clinic had been canceled, in which case I would have stepped out discreetly and called him to call my husband), and then I found myself pressing the Facebook button. Soon after, the dean said "Oh, and President S has just joined us" and pointed in my direction, and I realized he was sitting right behind me. So I put it away. ;)