Thursday, May 08, 2008

Banning laptops from the classroom

The University of Chicago Law school has banned laptops from classrooms essentially because of 'the teacher knows best' meme.
"A certain amount of paternalism comes out in the school's justifications for the policy: Dean Levmore explained, "the question is, 'How do you best learn? That's for the faculty to decide.'"...

Professors at U of C (and elsewhere) think what they have to say is important. Professors think (and should think, or they would have trouble doing their jobs) that listening to what professors have to say really is the best use of law student time. And things have gotten to the point that you don't have to be a "hip young pRAWf" to sense that the student clicking furiously during another student's question isn't taking notes on that question.

As more and more law schools consider and embrace wireless deactivation (or the even more draconian laptop ban), I'd urge them to be honest. Telling students you know what's best for them -- whether we're talking about attendance policies or wireless -- only gets you so far. Be honest, and admit that you're banning wireless access because the plugged-in student is usually a disengaged one and has sucked the fun out of the classroom experience. Students are more likely to accept a top-down policy change if it's justified based on faculty morale than student learning."

Yes many of the students may well be checking their email, social networking pages, twittering or blogging etc. So if that's what they're doing anyway, why not engage them in actively using those tools to tune into your subject matter. Banning laptops in class is a bit like the education sector's equivalent of the entertainment industry wishing the Web had never happened.

Yet it is not just the teachers that don't like laptops in the room. Colleagues have recently grumbled at me using my laptop in meetings, saying it is disrespectful and the clicking of my keyboard is distracting (that's just two of the polite complaints) and participants in the OU's Making Connections conference recently were on the receiving end of similar grumbles.

With a real portable laptop (i.e. one that doesn't weigh half a tonne) I don't have to print out and carry reams of paper around, I can call any document up at a few seconds notice (well maybe not a few seconds as I'm still on XP), I can search, make notes, double check sources and frankly for the large portions of certain meetings when I just do not need to be there I can be getting on with real work, remotely supporting my staff on the broad ecology of issues they have to address on a daily basis - issues that wouldn't otherwise get dealt with until I got back to the office later in the day/week. And although I understand that multi-tasking is primarily the domain of the female of the species and I'm still a mere amateur in that regard, I guess that's why evolution gave us computers - to help us catch up. :-)

Update: I see Martin had some similar thoughts on the complaints at Making Connections.
"I think some people feel it shows disrespect to the speaker that you aren't giving them your full attention. In fact, thinking through the act of people having laptops or other devices operating during a talk I give, I'm of the completely opposite view. If what I'm saying isn't interesting enough for you to want to liveblog, twitter, look up sources or take notes on it, then I'm doing something wrong. And, if by some freak chance what I'm saying isn't interesting, then I'd rather people were doing their email or reading blogs than sitting in my session feeling resentful because they are trapped. Hey, I've had people sleeping during a talk before - I'd rather they were tapping away on their keyboards."

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