Call me a Luddite, but…

11 03 2010

…I’m not entirely sure what laptops are supposed to do in college classrooms.

I saw this article on classroom laptops bans when UD linked to it earlier this week. While it seemed very much like everything else she’s posted on this subject, this sentence stuck out:

Universities have stopped short of disabling Internet access entirely, which might create a raft of new complaints from professors who routinely ask students to go online in class.

“[R]outinely ask students to go online in class”? Really? For what? Isn’t the whole point of college supposed to be that professors provide students knowledge that they can’t get for free by just going to a library and reading books?

Now I see that a blogger at Inside Higher Ed is defending laptops from such bans, and all I can do is ask, “Is that all you got?” I’ll tackle his uses for laptops in classrooms in the order he provides them:

“a. For instant team research and authoring assignments.”

Um…research isn’t really research if it’s instant. And what’s the matter with pens and paper for authoring assignments? More importantly, how many assignments are done in class during lecture courses? That’s why there’s homework, which they are welcome to do on their laptop any time they like.

b. To provide real time feedback for student presentations, lectures or guest lectures.

Isn’t that why we have Clickers? Seriously, is this a class or a focus group that we’re talking about here?

c. For in-class blogging about the subject matter you discussed.

I happen to love blogging, and I do indeed use blogs as an educational tool in one of my classes, but assigning it during class time strikes me as something only a secondary school teacher with lots of time to kill would do. After all, I have 120-odd years of history to get through in my large lecture class in 14 weeks, teaching 3 hours per week. Every moment that students are using their laptops is a moment that I am not teaching them history. To me, that’s dereliction of duty.

All that said, I actually do allow laptops in my classroom under certain conditions, based on an article I found while writing this very blog: Everyone taking notes on a laptop has to sit in the front row so that I can keep an eye on them. [I walk while lecturing, so they never know when I’m going to turn up the aisle and can see what’s on their screen.] It seems to be working well so far.

Now if I could just figure out exactly what to do about cell phones.



6 responses

11 03 2010

Some of the comments over at InsideHigherEd are maddening.

Amongst some thoughtful ones are the typical (low) standards of:

“I paid for the class and HOW DARE the prof tell me what to do!”

“Those damn Luddite profs don’t understand the new high tech world!”

and the ever popular:

“But *I* never use it to web-surf; ergo, I *MUST* be allowed to use it for my super-duper note-taking!”

11 03 2010

Oh! Something else:

What did you think about the one commenter who suggested the lecture portion of class be shifted onto the Internet so that class time can be used for collaboration/research/webbiness (of the sort you dissect above)?

It’s a total inversion of the standard expectations…all designed to adapt to the student NEED for classroom laptop time.

I’ve actually kinda/sorta tried that one semester…didn’t work since many students don’t do homework, whether it be reading, writing, or video-watching.

And what’s with all the idiots who think it’s a good thing for adults to have repeated access to a lecture instead of experiencing it once, taking notes while experiencing it, and then engaging it via memory? Is having a memory now a complete waste? No wonder there’s no respect for history, law, or precedent of any sort.

12 03 2010
Jonathan Rees


What I remember most about the comments is seeing that the first guy had written the same thing about homework that I did (but I wrote my version of that point above before I got that far). The rest seemed like boilerplate whining. It does seem to me though that students who don’t really want to learn and professors who don’t really want to teach are a match made in heaven.

And while you’ve got me writing more on that post, what do you think of this “lids down” stuff? I’d love to see him try to enforce that command in a room with a hundred people in it.

12 03 2010

Yeah…”lids down” works REAL well. *eye roll*

A relevant story:

I taught a certain (writing) class in a computer lab so I could assign lots of in-class writing and have easy use of all that hi-tech classroom wizardry we’re all supposed to love. Every student had before them a big, glowing box of distraction! And I (and the department) provided it for them!

By mid-semester, there started to emerge a huge divide in student grades as demonstrated in their writing ability (or lack thereof). There was a significant difference between the grades of those who always had their eyes glued to the box and those who actually looked at me when we spoke. And then the breaking point happened.

I started class with a short discussion session (of the Socratic sort) as I tried to figure out why so many submissions of Paper #1 sucked. Suddenly, some happy music started playing. I asked whoever it was to turn off their phone. Music continued. I went out into the class to find the culprit (hard to do in a computer lab) and started seeing all sorts of taboo web-pages open, so I told everyone to log off the computers (aka “lids down”). The music kept playing. Angrily I went to every single computer until I found the offender…who had no idea it was her computer making the noise! Neither she nor her neighbor closed down the PCs until I looked them in the eye and told them to log off or leave. They demonstrated no shame.

At this point I was totally pissed. I went back to the front, read the class the riot act, then had to call out another student -BY NAME- and tell her to turn off the computer she was clickety-clacking at like no tomorrow. As I was still castigating them, I then had to chastise 2 more offenders. I finally demanded everyone TURN OFF their monitors and push their keyboards to the side, and that seemed to stop the noise, the distraction, and lovely red light mouse-show I saw from the front of the room. I finished my lecturette to a bunch of pouty faces and segued into a short video clip I needed them to see.

In the dark, what should I see, but the shifting lights reflected onto a student’s face as she stared intently at an active computer screen. I walked back to that area, saw 2 screens on –one by a student who was not touching a keyboard and the other by someone clickety-clacking away with nary a clue of the evil eye I was giving. I told her to log off the PC and leave. She threw a kindergarten-level tantrum, but eventually left. The rest of the semester was ruined from then on because NO ONE respected anyone –they sure as heck didn’t respect me or their peers, and I had absolutely no respect for most of them.

The following semester I taught the same course in computer labs (it was recommended by the department and I thought I had strategies to curb the bad behavior) and it was worse. These were smallish classes (22-31) but it still proved both tiring and trying just to get them to pay attention and do the in-class work. I mean, I even caught a few students who didn’t even do the in-class work because they had better things to do apparently (like fill out financial aid forms or catch the sports scores). And these were the same students who skewered me on course evals and filed grade complaints or otherwise poisoned the classroom with their bad attitudes. They also, to the last, had low grades.

Here are my final thoughts (sorry for hi-jacking your blog):

I do agree with all the critics who claim this “new” generation needs to use computers and should be able to and they’re adults and blah-blah-blah. Except, they are not held to the same standards as adults. At many schools, they are treated like children, coddled and appeased instead of being called out for their bad behavior. They need to FAIL a class if they do poorly. They need to be kicked out if they disrupt the class by watching porn or cartoons or doing Facebook or shopping. They need to learn how and when to use technology and communication devices. But many profs, administrations, and even whole institutions lack the will and backbone to tell their “customers” the equivalent of “Either start wiping your sweat off the gym equipment or get out (and no refund!).”

Retention! Retention! Retention!

And if they fail, it’s obviously because the instructor is boring or not engaging enough or not entertaining enough, etc. Although how a student on Facebook even knows what’s going on in the room enough to be able to gauge that still bewilders me.

12 03 2010
Jonathan Rees


No worries. I wish more people would hijack this blog as this is getting very interesting.

As it was not very long ago that attention spans became a serious problem, I remember how angry I was when I first noticed students texting during lecture. I was convinced that it was my fault somehow until I read enough to understand that this is some kind of generational thing that now happens to everyone. Indeed I mean EVERYONE; even the most popular teachers on campus. Going back to what I wrote above, I think some of this has to do with students being forced to take introductory humanities classes that they’d rather avoid. I still have no problem with tech in my upper-level classes full of history majors.

Limiting laptops in the classroom is a little bit like moving the candy tray away from dieters. It’s the minimum thing you can do for their own good. Learning to live with a perpetually distracted student population is the best thing that people at the front of the classroom can do for themselves, but that is easier said than done in my case because there are simply some things that I will not compromise.

14 03 2010

You bring up the “students being forced to take introductory humanities classes that they’d rather avoid” issue, and I think it’s relevant in a different way.

Those students I was telling you about? Um…this was a required (intro-level) course for their major! They couldn’t be bothered to do the work for the thing they wanted a job doing! So, at least in my experience, it’s much more than just an I-don’t-need-that phenomenon.

Many students literally would prefer to remain ignorant. Or, rather, they think they know everything already, even in the face of evidence to the contrary.

And many of them resent that. They resent being exposed to actual education. In my eyes, it really connects back to the rampant anti-intellectualism in the US (and beyond).

I mean, they can just look up when WWII was! They don’t need to know (even rough) dates! I was stunned when I first realized most of my students had no idea WWII was in the late 30s to mid-40s. When an instructor cannot even rely on students to know basic historical benchmarks, what does that say about our system of “higher” ed?

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