Even More Laptops In The Classroom

Once More Unto The Breach, Dear Friends

Another one of these Luddite “Ban technology from the classroom, they’re distracting the students” papers appeared a few days ago in the THES. It’s based on a paper (paywalled, unfortunately) which studied laptop use and academic performances for a fairly large sample size of students. Predictably, a number of people were shocked, shocked at this and vowed to ban laptops and other newfangled things from their classrooms. Here’s why they are wrong, even if the paper is correct and using a laptop in the current classroom situation is detrimental.

Firstly, the absolute deal-breaker as far as I am concerned. A ban on laptops and personal electronic devices in the classroom will discriminate against those people who need to use them. Even if they are granted special permission by the instructor to use them, it will draw attention to them in the classroom. I would never, ever, support this. I am not qualified to make that judgement, and frankly, it’s none of my business.

Secondly, let’s draw back to the use of electronic devices outside of the classroom. They are ubiquitous. We use them all the time. GO to any meeting in any office and look around at how many people are taking notes or minutes on their laptops. Where did they learn that skill? Probably in higher education. How can we possibly think that devices used so much, by so many people, can be banned from the classroom? How does this enrich the learning experience? How does this connect the classroom with the world outside the classroom? It doesn’t.

King Cnut (aka Canute, King of Denmark and England) teaching his courtiers about futility. (Alphonse-Marie-Adolphe de Neuville)

What these calls for banning of laptops in classrooms shows is simply that the pedagogy of teaching has not caught up with the technology. To ban technology is as futile as King Cnut (Canute) trying to command the tide to turn back — he knew it was futile, but turned it into a teachable moment for his fawning courtiers. We cannot simply ban an advance in technology fromm the classroom because it interferes with the smooth running of our customary teaching methods.

Take a closer look at these studies on technology in the classroom. What do they actually study? They show what happens when laptops are allowed in classes for which they were not designed. Most classroom pedagogy has not changed for a very long time. The pedagogy would be instantly recognisable to time travellers from the 19th century. Students take notes on paper. The class is paced to allow them to do that. The class is not designed on the assumption that everyone in it has internet access, and can therefore interact in class far differently. So now we drop electronic note-taking devices into this mix. Are we surprised that a pedagogy optimised for writing does not work as well for a different note-taking technique? I’m not.

I’ll give you a personal example of resistance to change in education. When I went to secondary school in the UK, during the early 1970s, writing with ink pens was compulsory. I imagine it was to “promote good handwriting”. I ignored this and wrote in ballpoint pen instead. Why? Because I’m left handed. It’s almost impossible to write neatly with an ink-pen without smudging the ink. I never got into trouble for this, and I think enforcement completely vanished long before I left school. But you notice that this was a rule with a pedagogical justification, however dodgy, which would leave left-handers (10% of the population!) at a significant disadvantage. This is one reason why I will not put students who need assistive technology at a disadvantage, and I will not have them singled out in class for using such technology.

What will the improved pedagogy of the future look like?

A few predictions from my perspective as a teacher in the sciences

1) There will continue to be face-to-face classroom time, with a teacher physically present in a room with students. We do not yet have the technology for seamless virtual meetings. It’s still much too primitive and restrictive, although improving all the time.

2) It will be more collaborative and networked. Collective note taking by students (using, say a shared Google doc) is already a thing. What is lacking so far is the pedagogical response to that. Do the students have time to contemplate and discuss the collective set of notes? How can the teacher facilitate or moderate those discussions? Does there need to be formal time set aside for those discussion to take place?

3) Some things can be moved online. Some animations, interviews, visualizations and discussions are already widely available. Using them effectively in class is another matter. Time needs to be invested in exploring the ramifications, the debating points and the theory behind such materials. The learning experience must not be a passive one, there must be interaction between students and teacher, and between the students

4) The traditional lecture, a rather poor teaching tool, will become less important. In my own, rather large physics classes, the time I spend talking is down to 50%, and the time the students spend doing things is up to 25%, with the balance of the time being taken up with simulations or demonstrations of physical principles.

5) Online education will continue to flourish, although the hype surrounding MOOCS was now died down. Students who already have developed learning skills can do well in them, and I would expect them to become an increasingly important part of the HE system. I do not expect them to takeover from traditional HE courses based in classrooms. Partly because this is because I love teaching in person, so I’m bound to be biased.

6) Whatever I predict, other things are sure to happen!

These shifts will be a big struggle for many teachers, and also for many Higher Education administrations to deal with. After all, most of the people presently teaching flourished with such methods, and they know what to do. Moving to other methods will take them out of their comfort zone. Good. University administrations love big lecture classes, because they are hugely efficient in terms of room requirements, scheduling and costs. Unfortunately, they are not good ways to teach, and at some point, discerning students are going to move to institutions where the teaching and learning environment is better. Undergraduate students do not rate their HE Institution by research capabilities, but by teaching standards, student facilities and support services. But we cannot cling to a centuries-old pedagogical framework, when society and technology have advanced far beyond that point.