of laptops and lectures: report on a middle path

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In this post, I’m going to tell you about my solution to the laptops-in-lecture problem, and how it played out in a recent large (~100 person) lecture course. Tl;dr: don’t ban laptops outright, instead create a zone in the classroom where students are allowed to use laptops for note-taking only.

The Problems

Over the past year, academics have debated the merits of “laptop bans” in classes. Perhaps most prominently, Susan Dynarski argued in her NYT column in favor a ban, citing evidence from recent research showing laptop use to be contrary to student learning, including those of nearby students:

The strongest argument against allowing that choice is that one student’s use of a laptop harms the learning of students around them. In a series of lab experiments, researchers at York University and McMaster University in Canada tested the effect of laptops on students who weren’t using them. Some students were told to perform small tasks on their laptops unrelated to the lecture, like looking up movie times. As expected, these students retained less of the lecture material. But what is really interesting is that the learning of students seated near the laptop users was also negatively affected.

My favorite example of this distraction came when watching a PhD student literally apply to other graduate programs during a graduate seminar. I won’t name any names, but I will see that it affected my ability to pay attention to the lecture and discussion. The more common examples are students watching television (live sports are a frequent distractor), or using social media (Facebook, Instagram, etc.), all of which are (intentionally) difficulty to look away from.

The two main counterarguments I’ve seen focus on heterogeneity and disability. Heterogeneity first. Writing as a guest here at scatterplot, Jeff Lockhart made the strong case that studies of laptop effects on learning have not paid sufficient attention to causal heterogeneity. Using a laptop is not the same as surfing the internet, and using a laptop is not the same thing as trying to take verbatim notes. Yes, surfing the internet and trying to take verbatim notes are probably bad for learning, but students who have been trained to take high-quality, synthetic notes on laptops, and who refrain from surfing the web, will likely benefit from so doing. In summary, Lockhart writes:

Too often, it is discussed as if laptops are categorically bad for all students, which is a broader claim than current research supports. With different kinds of courses or groups of students, banning laptops may not have a net-positive effect. The edge cases are untested and even some ban advocates find it plausible. In either case, simplistic “ban vs no ban” debates and experiments prevent us from imagining and evaluating alternatives like teaching study skills. “Laptops are bad for learning” is a catchy polemic, but the studies it is based on support far narrower claims.

Second, many scholars have noted that blanket laptop bans are outright discriminatory to some students with learning disabilities. An example: students with dysgraphia literally have difficulties handwriting, a problem that can be reduced by taking notes on a computer. Jordynn Jack and Katie Rose Guest Pryal give more examples in their op-ed here, a direct response to Dynarski. Jack & Pryal (and others) also note that the common solution – providing specific exemptions from a laptop ban for disabled students – is stigmatizing:

While the evidence is shaky that laptops harm learning, there is real cause to believe banning laptops harms disabled students. As Singer told us, disabled students bear burdens of suspicion and jealousy when they’re singled out in class with a tool that other students don’t get to use.

So, to summarize: there’s some evidence that, on average, college students in lecture courses do worse when they use laptops in class, and that laptop use may harm the learning of nearby students, but there’s likely a lot of heterogeneity, and blanket laptop bans are discriminatory while bans with exceptions are stigmatizing. What should we do?

One Solution: The Laptop Zone

In a previous class, I had tried the laptop-ban-with-exception policy, and appreciated how it changed the dynamic of the classroom. My students also reported mostly positive experiences, appreciating the lack of distractions from both their own (mis)use of computers, and from that of their neighbors. My own experience giving lectures was also that the laptop ban put more onus on me to be an engaged lecturer – my students were less likely to zone out, which means there was more payoff to delivering an engaging lecture, and failing to give one turned into a painful experience for everyone involved. At the same time, I was compelled by the arguments about heterogeneity and disability. Also, on a personal note, my own handwriting is terrible, I find the act of handwriting to be mildly painful, and my own notes are worthless when not taken on a laptop.

My solution was to specify a zone of the classroom in which laptop use was permitted, but only for note taking. This policy was enforced by having a TA sit behind the designated laptop zone and (gently) alert students if they were misusing their laptops (potentially to the point of asking a student to leave class and count them an absent for the day, though this was never necessary in practice).  Students were also not permitted to check their phones during lecture. I also provided a short break in each 80 minute lecture, during which time students could check their phones or computers. Here’s how I described the policy in the syllabus:

Turn off your cell phone and store it during lecture. If you might need to receive a call during class for some reason, put your phone on vibrate and step out quietly as needed. Similarly, please store your laptop during class. Research shows that using a laptop during class impedes both your learning and the learning of students around you (see, e.g., Sana et al. 2013, and Dynarski 2017). There will be pauses during each lecture where I will encourage you to check your devices. Otherwise, please refrain from using them.

We will designate one area of the lecture hall as a “laptops permitted” zone. Students may sit in this zone if they feel, for any reason, that you would benefit from using a laptop to take notes. Students using laptops or cellphones for purposes other than note taking will be asked to leave and be counted as absent for the class.

In the Spring of 2018, I taught a roughly 100 person lecture course at Brown in a standard lecture hall. The laptop zone consisted of the first 5 rows (or so) of one third of the classroom, space enough to hold about a third of my 100ish person class (though it could be expanded or contracted based on demand). Most students opted not to use a laptop. Those that did opt to use a laptop were not required to provide any explanation for so doing. I know, from other forms of disclosure required for extended time testing, that some of those students had learning disabilities. Others may have, but chosen not to disclose them. And some may simply have wanted to take notes on a laptop. At least one regular laptop user was in fact a designated notetaker, who provided notes to other students through the Accessibility Services office. So using laptops was not, I hope, stigmatizing.

Those students who did choose to use laptops mostly stayed on task. Each class, one of the two TAs sat behind the designated laptop notes. Occasionally I noted the TA gently remind a student to not use their laptop for unrelated activities, but this happened much less than once per class. Thus, those students who chose to sit in the laptop zone (for whatever reason) still faced minimal distractions.

The rest of the students mostly adhered to the rules, though I did end up asking a student to put down a smartphone once every week or two. I reserved these interruptions for students using their phones for an extended period of time and holding the phone up so that it would be visible to nearby students (and to me).

Everyone appreciated the planned break in class – 80 minutes is too long to go without stopping, even if you break things up with videos or discussions or other activities. Framing it in part in terms of the laptop and cell phone policy also helped to “sell” the policy, as students felt like their need to check in with the world was being respected and that they got something (a short break) in exchange for their less-divided attention. Similarly, I also very visibly set an alarm on my own phone to go off 2 minutes before the end of each lecture. I told students that I would do so, and would promise to end lecture on time, if they promised not to begin the noisy process of packing up their things and putting on their coats until the lecture ended. This coordination device was reasonably effective – I usually ended most lectures about 2 minutes early (when my alarm went off), but when I needed to finish a discussion or topic I had the flexibility to do so without students disrupting class to make for the exits. Class thus had a clear beginning (marked by my telling the class good morning and sometimes asking them to put their laptops away) and ending (the alarm and my officially ending the lecture, always on time).

Overall reactions to the policy were pretty low-key. Very few students mentioned it in their evaluations, for example. A few said positive things about it in face-to-face conversations. Just one student offered a negative comment on the policy in their course evaluation (saying that the policy was “unnecessary” and that it was a form of treating students “like middle schoolers”). For the most part, though, it just worked. If you’re considering trying out a laptop ban – or if you’ve already tried one, but found it didn’t quite work the way you wanted – I encourage you to try out the laptop zone (and associated policies).

Author: Dan Hirschman

I am a sociologist interested in the use of numbers in organizations, markets, and policy. For more info, see here.

One thought on “of laptops and lectures: report on a middle path”

  1. Three quick caveats:
    1. This policy worked in a large lecture class that was, in many other ways, not at all innovative. YMMV with other classroom models and sizes- I have not figured out a similarly effective policy for discussion-heavy seminars where students want to reference readings, for example.

    2. This class was well-resourced. I had two TAs for a bit less than 100 students, and there were supplemental discussion sections. A mid-sized lecture with no TAs or sections might work a bit differently.

    3. I’m a hetero-presenting White man and my exercises of authority are inevitably viewed by students in that context. I do not face the same struggles other instructors face in getting respect from students and am likely punished much less when I call out students or otherwise act in ways that could be seen as “mean.” Informal discussions of the policy, and formal course evaluations both reflect this.

    Like

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