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Digital distraction

Are laptop bans the answer to the misuse of computers in the classroom?

By TERENCE DAY | NOV 05 2007

Our students must be paying attention in class, because they’re busily using their laptops to type every word from our lectures. Or maybe not.

A quick look from the back of university and college lecture theatres shows that many students with wireless laptops are engaged in non-academic activities, including instant messaging, checking e-mails, playing games and social networking on sites such as Facebook.

Some faculty members have dealt with this situation by imposing outright bans on laptops in classrooms. But Canadian universities and colleges have spent millions of dollars on wireless networks, so a total ban seems counterproductive or at least a waste of resources.

Perhaps surprisingly, the relative advantages and disadvantages of wireless laptops in the classroom are still being debated in the educational research literature. Anecdotally, stories of students misusing the technology are legion. Jean Boivin, an economics professor at Montreal’s école des Hautes études Commerciales, for example, was shocked when he read in a newspaper article that one of his students had lost thousands of dollars day-trading from a wireless laptop in his classroom.

Guy Plourde, a chemistry professor at the University of Northern British Columbia, is likely typical of many faculty members who’d like to see a complete ban on laptops. He says he’s frustrated when students – heads raised briefly from their computers – want him to repeat what he said because they didn’t pay attention the first time.

Concerns are also being voiced by students themselves. Dawn Lomas of the Learning Success Centre at Ryerson University and Michael Howard of the economics department at the University of Waterloo have both received complaints from students who say they couldn’t concentrate in class because other students around them were using their laptops to play games or watch DVDs.

Despite this, most students don’t appear to support a total laptop ban. Laurie Harrison, the ombudsperson at Simon Fraser University, has fielded several complaints from students after their professor banned laptops in the classroom.

So what are the alternatives? Margaret Wilson, coordinator of university teaching services at the University of Alberta, suggests that it is best to deal with distractive students individually. Request that they refrain from disturbing others during class and if their actions continue then the professor may appropriately ask them to leave.

But the deeper issue, say most experts, is that students need to be actively engaged in their learning. Teresa Dawson, director of the Learning and Teaching Centre at the University of Victoria, suggests faculty employ such active-learning approaches as shared exercises, problem-based learning and the new clicker technologies that allow simultaneous class response to questions. “Kinesthetic learners, in particular, need to be active in class and so if we make them sit passively it is harder for them to learn,” she says.

And faculty members can integrate laptops into that active learning. Gary Poole, director of the Centre for Teaching and Academic Growth at the University of British Columbia, believes that it is important for faculty members to “bring activities to class that invite the constructive use of Internet connections and feature measures of accountability for that use.”

For example, students can be asked to work in groups to either solve a problem requiring Internet access or to find a resource on the web that is relevant to a topic at hand. “Each group would then be responsible for reporting to the class and perhaps displaying their findings,” he says. Others suggest that it may be appropriate to have laptop-free periods without necessarily having a complete ban.

Which leads to what I believe is the best suggestion, from Tracy Roberts, an instructional designer with the Centre for Teaching and Educational Technologies at Royal Roads University: Have the students come up with the policy, and develop an agreement with them. This approach is consistent with the fact that universities and colleges across Canada increasingly encourage students to take responsibility for their own learning. Students are the ones most affected by both digital distractions and laptop bans. It makes sense to include them in the decision-making process.

So, at the beginning of the semester, I brought up the laptop issue in my first-year physical geography class. At first the students didn’t see the point of having the discussion. But once we got beyond the idea of students having “the right” to bring laptops into the classroom, and whether that right was absolute even if it affected the people around them, the discussion became more productive.

We discussed, for example, whether it was better for people with laptops to sit in a special section of the room so that they wouldn’t affect other people. Not only was it a useful discussion on laptops, it also helped to frame issues such as the importance of class attendance, respect for other students and readiness to actively participate in class. Try it, and let me know how it goes.

Terence Day teaches geography and earth and environmental science at Okanagan College, Kelowna, B.C.

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