Tuesday, December 30, 2014

To Ban or Not To Ban (Laptops)?

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Earlier this year, Anne Curzan wrote an article for The Chronicle of Higher Education that shared the speech she gives students each semester about why she prohibits laptop use in her classes. She made several excellent points, which I have anecdotally found to be true:

  • It's difficult to resist the lure of the internet.
  • The internet will draw you away from the classroom experience. 
  • No one actually multi-tasks well. 
  • Looking at a computer screen means you aren't making eye contact, so discussion becomes discouraged
  • Other students are distracted by one person's computer use, especially if the screen is visible to them.
  • It's distracting for the instructor, who is forced into awareness that a student is Not Paying Attention.
  • Taking notes by hand is more effective than taking notes on a computer. 

This last point I find especially intriguing. When I first heard it two years ago, it was credited to the physical act of handwriting. A study had shown that muscle memory helps mental memory. Curzan claims it's because students are forced to condense the lecture and decide the important points. They're actively processing the material instead of passively recording.

I found Curzan's argument to be persuasive enough that I started writing a laptop policy for my classroom. And then I stopped. Why? Because I love those moments when someone asks a question I don't know the answer to and someone looks it up. What's a word mean? Look it up. What year was the Charge of the Light Brigade? Look it up. How many siblings did Florence Nightingale have? Look it up. I especially enjoy it when students looks up information on their own.

It's true, I also use laptops for in-class activities. They're useful tools, especially in a writing classroom. But that moment of mystery and discovery is what I really value. So I was glad to read alternate points of view like this one from The Chronicle in September. Nicole Short's argument is that students must learn to discipline themselves, to do what's best because it's best and not because it's what they've been told.

What I've decided to do in my literature class is to assign a Note Book, a journal with notes from class and the reading which will be picked up and checked at different points in the semester. And it has to be hand-written. Students can still use their laptops in class if they like, but they'll have to write out their notes long-hand afterwards. That way I can make sure (1) they're taking some notes and (2) they're taking good notes.

N.B. I can only do this because I have just one lit class in the spring with a cap of 25 students. If I had more, I would probably just check off the notes or not require it at all. So often pedagogy suffers because of too heavy a load …

What's your view on the debate? If you allow laptops and tablets, what's your policy on their use?

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