Another week sees another fulmination against laptops in the classroom by a teacher. This time it’s an American college professor writing in a professional educational bulletin. He has given up on these devilish devices in his classes. They are banned because they inhibit class discussion and allow students to disturb each other – and who knows what they’re looking at on those things.
When most teachers look out on their charges these days, they often see, not the beaming visages of those eager to learn, but the crowns of their heads as the students lean over their keyboards, their faces partly blocked by the flip-up screens. It’s a new learning environment and most instructors are not amused. Indeed, many of us have probably considered banning electronic gizmos of all kinds – cellphones, iPods, laptops and even some calculators – at one time or another.
The pedagogical villain here is something called multitasking. Our students think they can send e-mails and do online banking or gaming while taking lecture notes. Most instructors, especially older ones, disagree and are quick to point to studies proving that concentration is lost when multitasking.
Yet, I wonder whether something else is also at issue here. Consider how people worked in the pre-industrial era. Labourers in agriculture and construction sang on the job. Weavers composed poetry to the rhythm of the loom and many skilled artisans employed a boy to read to them while they worked. Everyone talked on the job and took unscheduled breaks quite frequently. In short, they laboured away in a multitasking environment.
Then, two and a half centuries ago, the industrial revolution began. Manufacturing increasingly was performed in factories for monetary wages. The employer purchased the worker’s time and demanded a strict focus on the task at hand.
Factory workers were subjected to a new discipline. In addition to prohibitions on drunkenness, assault, theft and improper language in the workplace, there was a new set of rules that had to be obeyed. Typically the rules included no whistling or singing, no talking, no staring out the windows and no leaving the work bench without permission. Disobey, and the worker risked a serious fine to be deducted from wages.
In short, the early factory masters and bosses were no-nonsense, profit-driven capitalists determined to put an end to pre-industrial multitasking work patterns. Over the past two centuries, they have been largely successful in driving out these “bad” habits of the workforce.
The same values have been inculcated by the comprehensive educational systems of modern societies. What did we learn in school besides the “three Rs”? We learned to pay attention and sit in one place for long stretches of time. We learned to be punctual and to keep quiet when the teacher was speaking. After six or seven generations of the industrial and school system experience, most of us have so internalized the new work ethic, we have forgotten that the traditional world of work was a multitasking environment.
The world of industry also had its analogue at the university or college: the lecture hall became a place of mono-tasking by way of note-taking in a book or on a clipboard. Then came the dreaded laptop, the sinister, unanticipated machine that disrupted everything.
Now, students have their own portable windows to stare into, their own songs to listen to, their games to play and messages to send to friends inside and outside the classroom. All the while they are seated at their work benches – oops, sorry, their places in the classroom – and presumably also taking notes from an instructor.
So now I’m having to rethink my position on laptops in the learning process and the option to ban them. Is it a purely pedagogical issue or is there something else in play here? Perhaps the generation of successful mono-tasking geezers doesn’t know any other way of getting results and has unwittingly internalized an industrial work ethic. Meanwhile, a younger generation has started to revert to a pre-industrial multitasking work culture, one that largely was extinguished in the industrial revolution that began more than two centuries ago.
By all means, let’s do rigorous studies to determine the quality of learning in a multitasking environment. But let’s include an awareness of deep-rooted, perhaps hidden, cultural values that such inquiries will involve.
Fred Donnelly teaches history at the University of New Brunswick and does allow laptops in his classes.