Thursday, December 22, 2011

Poll for AUN students: my laptop policy?

For my future students, please give a few minutes' thought to the arguments I list, and then add a comment. Your comments will actually help decide my laptop policy for future semesters.

Mungowitz has been bringing to my attention the debate on whether to allow laptops in classrooms or not. His primary argument in favor of allowing them is basically that anyone who feels so insecure as to need to ban laptops must be a terrible teacher who can't keep students' attention. Stop being a bad teacher, and students will either choose to not use their laptop at all, or to use them for good [enhanced studying], not evil [email and Facebook]. Any attempt to ban laptops he accuses of being either prostitution or slavery.

The official response he got from Harrigan deals handily with the accusations of slavery, but does very little else for me. In my estimation, the psych studies are pretty good and estimate that students have an easier time paying attention for up to 15 minutes and after that the costs are higher. So get more variety in the classroom and students will have an easier time. I'm happy with that even if I lacked the time to do that properly last semester in all four classes I was teaching for the first time.

Mungowitz later also posted two thoughtful responses that I think do a better job of explaining why to not allow laptops. The first notices that the difference between terrible teaching and excellent teaching was a drop from 95% of the students on Facebook to only 85%. Even though laptops may be a substitute for doodling, they are very engaging distractions, unlike doodling. That introduces the second email which takes the form of a confessional: a student brought a laptop with every intention of using it for enhanced learning but ended up being lured in by instant messaging, FB, Google Reader, and the rest. It took this student the whole of the undergrad years to break those bad habits. He or she adds:
if a student (or, in most cases, their parents) wants to pay for a Duke degree, then we have the prerogative to decide what that means. And in this case, it should mean helping students form the good habits that my own undergraduate professors didn't have the guts to help me form. We are training them to pay attention in a world that does not simply consist of 15-20 minute segments punctuated by the naptimes or clapping games of our kindergarten teachers.
The same psych studies that tell Mungowitz to vary tactics every 15 minutes also tell us that people have commitment and self-control problems, that in fact people can be made better off by having fewer choices - such as by not allowing laptops to help students with a self-control problem.

My confessional: I bring my laptop so I can work on something else and pay a little attention. I'm interested in the speaker, but have something else that interests me more. I think I can honestly say I don't use FB or email during lectures and seminars, but I do read, grade, and edit papers. Powerpoint only makes not paying attention that much easier because I can get the main points without listening too closely because most people haven't learned how to teach beyond the bullet points when they use it. [This is one reason I use it sparingly.]

Since I assume people are close enough to being like me, if I see you have a computer out, I assume you are not paying very close attention. I mark my attendance sheet accordingly. When I wander the classroom, my guesswork is nearly always verified: I see email, Facebook, and the occasional news article and almost never a notepad with class notes.

So, would you prefer that I

  • allow laptops, but continue assuming you aren't listening while they are open; OR
  • help your self-control problem by disallowing laptops?

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