Laptops in the Classroom: What Would Socrates Do?

Based upon the art of Josef Abel (1807)

Now we have a major Canadian newspaper running a story on “Professors banning the laptop from their classroom”.

On the face of it, banning laptops might seem to be a good idea. It is well known that students can become distracted by technology, and start doing “digital doodling” such as updating Facebook, browsing the web, reading news streams or Twitter. This is entirely unsurprising in my view. What is surprising to me is the short-sightedness of many in academia to this trend. The students we are teaching now have grown up with mobile devices from an early age, whether a phone, a tablet, or a laptop. They have been using them at school, and a considerable amount of their entertainment, social life and information gathering and processing revolves around them. We are probably at the very early stages of human-machine interfacing, and if trends carry on like this, may have network-enabled implants sooner, rather than later. The Professors who are trying to stem this tide of electronic interfacing are, in my opinion, wasting their time. People’s lives are already network-device-centric, and this will only increase. It seems to me that instead of resisting the tide, we should embrace it, and explore the new pedagogical possibilities that could evolve from present techniques, or will be invented from scratch, to embrace the machine. Hence the title. Socrates was one of the greatest teachers in history, and has the Socratic Method, of teaching by question and answer named after him. But would he really have stuck with that method exclusively if his students carried network-enabled devices when he was teaching? I doubt it. So here are a few thoughts on pedagogy in the ages of human-machine interfacing.

If your students are distracted, change your teaching.

You need to keep your students engaged and interested. Changing types of teaching every 10 minutes or so can help. Group activities, in class problems, peer-instruction, student presentation, even the Socratic method are all alternatives to chalk and talk lectures, or even just talk lectures.

Treat the students as responsible adults

You are not doing this by taking their “toys” away from them. You are trying to superimpose your view on what constitutes “proper” teaching on them. You need to let them have the devices, with the risks of distraction. It is their responsibility to learn not to be distracted. This is a skill they must have if they want to be useful in the workplace. Where are they going to learn it? Higher education, of course. We will be teaching people not just how to think, but also how to resist distraction. We already do this in the traditional sense, by making students apply self discipline and organization to their work habits. This is a natural extension of that role. There is quite naturally, the possibilities with students not being able to risk the distractions and siren-song of the internet. In which case, these students may well fail the course. So be it. Failure is a great educator. But if you structure your course work correctly, and give feedback on reasons for failure, then there will be lessons well learned.

Some people need the laptop or device

An increasing number of students are dependent on using the keyboard as their method of writing notes. An example of this group are people with fine motor skill issues. Traditional writing may be an ordeal for them, and too slow for them to take effective notes. Similarly for people with arthritic hands. We don’t want to single these people out in class by them being the only ones allowed to take notes via a laptop.

My Teaching Techniques for Large Classes

My typical class is 100–350 students in an introductory Physics course. I harness mobile devices by using them as a classroom response system. Not all students choose to participate, but typically around 70% of the students do so. I can talk for a few minutes on a topic, then set a multiple choice question for them to answer and send the response. Then they peer instruct their neighbours on their answer and discuss alternate answers. This is demonstrably a better way of teaching, and leads to increased retention of information and understanding.

I do not go around the class, checking on what students are doing, because that would be:

(a) A complete waste of my time, when I could be teaching

(b) Would demonstrate that I don’t trust my students to stay on task. My classroom ethos is built around trust and the honour system. I am always deeply despondent when a student does break that trust, as inevitably happens from time to time, but the advantage for the vast majority of students overwhelmingly outweighs that.

(c) I want students to learn by their mistakes, and grow because of that.

The nice thing about this technique, which I have been refining for 10 years now, first at the University of Saskatchewan, and recently at Carleton University, is that it is very scalable. It works with any class size greater than around thirty. With a smaller class, I intend to do something different, with more small group work, more akin to laboratory experiments, without actual apparatus. I am in the process of developing pedagogy and software simulations to do this in my XJSScientia project. I was fortunate enough to be one of the two winners of the inaugural Contract Instructor Innovation Prizes at Carleton to fund this, and have the services of a talented Javascript programmer, Griffin Szymanski-Barrett, who is an engineering student.

So that is my take on the laptop in classroom debate. I am in favour. I am sure that Socrates would be in favour too!