Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The no-laptops-in-class experiment, a midterm report

Like a lot of teachers, for years I've had some students whose faces I've never seen although I stand in front of them (or, during group work, beside them) several times a week for 16 weeks. Why? Because their faces are buried behind a laptop screen, and if I call on them unexpectedly--and it's always unexpectedly, because they rarely seem aware of what's going on in class and never raise their hands--the shocked look they give is so universal that it doesn't give me a sense of their personalities.

This semester, emboldened by all the "laptops are a distraction" editorials by faculty AND students that Margaret Soltan keeps posting, I banned them (along with cell phones, etc.). Just did it. Put it in the syllabus and everything, along with the requisite proviso about exceptions.

One big general exception is that if there's scheduled group work, everyone can bring a laptop (or cell phone, or whatever) and use it to look things up, and everyone seems to do this who wants to. If they don't have a laptop, they can use mine up at the front of the room to look things up.

So far, so good. Some impressions:
  • Class participation seems to be better in all the classes. At the very least there aren't 3-5 people permanently checked out of class, as there used to be when laptops were allowed.
  • It cuts down considerably on the Laptop Two-Step of calling on someone:
"Stu Dent, what did this quotation mean?"
(Startled Stu Dent) "What?"
"What did this quotation mean?"
"What quotation? What page are we on?" and so on.
  • I can catch their eyes before I call on them by name, so they can get ready and not embarrass themselves by seeming clueless.
  • Even if they zone out, they come back more quickly than they used to with laptops.
  • If they're doodling or taking notes, it's a lot easier for them to break away from doing that and look up to answer a question.
  • Of course, they could kill me on evaluations for not allowing their digital native selves to flourish in a wireless and connected environment, but I'm more interested in what they're learning, which seems to be (as gauged anecdatally by discussion and quizzes) more than in previous iterations of the class.
Yes, I could have done all that "incorporating Twitter" and being constantly fact-checked by students that a lot of edutech people advocate, but that might be better for large lecture classes. If it's a discussion, I want students to discuss. Is that unreasonable?

The thing is, I know it's hard to break away from a computer screen. It's hard for me, and, to judge by the people I see shopping at Zappos, checking email, and looking up the speaker's quotations on Wikipedia during conference presentations at MLA, it's hard for other people, too. I figure that for three hours a week in class, we can all look at each other and talk about literature without a digital intermediary. It's not too much to ask.


Arbitrista said...

Boy am I glad I don't teach anymore. Having a classroom full of students staring at their laptops and texting on cellphones would drive me insane!

Anonymous said...

Agreed. And my evals have been better since banning laptops. The complete elimination of the comment, "she gave us homework/tests on stuff she didn't teach in class."

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

My view is that they're paying for the experience of being present in the classroom with me, and so they should be fully, undistractedly present. If they want an online course, there are plenty of places to do that. When I present this view to students, they nod enthusiastically. On rare occasions, like when the classroom equipment isn't working, I ask them to get out smartphones and check on something, and then it is (apparently) a happy departure from routine. But that doesn't happen often.

Sisyphus said...

I approve! Today I had people who wanted to do the freewrite in my comp class on the computer, and got annoyed when I pointed out I was collecting it at the end of class. They had to borrow paper. Humph.

Anonymous said...

Would you be willing to share the language in your syllabus banning laptops? I've never had an issue with them before this term, but the fallout from the 20% of students using them in my small classes has convinced me to address it.

undine said...

Arbitrista--it sure would, if they could do that!

nicoleandmaggie--That's good to know about the evals. I wasn't sure how this would go over, but no one objects to my face, anyway.

Dame Eleanor--that's a good way to explain it to them. We do have times when they can use their laptops and phones, but they know those in advance.

Sisyphus--Don't you hate how this puts us in the position of being the weird outliers since we expect them to write on paper? It's "freewrite," not "freetype," anyway.

Anon--I'd worry about giving the exact language, given my cloak of invisibility, but it wasn't anything special. I didn't explain too much but just told them that we'd have laptops/cellphones on a certain few days but not at all on the others. I think it helped that I didn't apologize or seem tentative; I just stated it in the same way that I told them how many papers they were going to write. The hardest thing for me was actually deciding to do it. I know it's unfashionable for us to project ourselves as any kind of authority figure ever lest the ghost of Paolo Freire come down and smite us, but really, if we know or believe that we know what's going to work in our class, why not use that confidence in our authority to do what we think is right?

Anonymous said...

Thanks -- that helps push me over the line to do it next term. I'm at a small place -- my biggest class this term has 20 -- and convinced that even a few open laptops seriously erode the quality of group endeavor.

Anonymous said...

New reason for no smartphones allowed.

I do allow them normally because you can look up words.

So the police officer in my class told me to be aware of something. Apparently one student who sits in the back actually has porn on his phone. He was doing a little more, and I didn't realize it, and his neighbors got nervous. So the police officer has already spoken to him and scared the living daylights out of him but says "be aware."

So it is taken care of. Should I go on record about this to dept chair, secretary, dean of students, at this point or not?

undine said...

Profacero--talk about inappropriate behavior on the student's part! I think it would be better to go on record about it, because if he acts up/acts out again, or if other students do, it won't come as a surprise to them.

I'm not teaching language classes, but I do ask them if they've looked up the words they don't know if we're talking about a poem or whatever. They are supposed to do this before class the old fashioned way rather than checking in class (because of the no cell/no laptop policy).

Also: ew, ew, ew.

Anonymous said...

Well, I did go on record, and yes, ew.

Cell phones, we use them for words that just come up - if I'm not living my life in the language I tend to forget how to say things like "wrench" and so on - in the old days though there would be a designated dictionary wielder.

turtar said...

I banned laptops from my classroom last year. The only real issue I've had is with students who receive accommodation from the disabilities office. Some of them are specifically allowed to bring computers. I hate it, but I can't legally prevent them. So this term I have one student out of 120 who is allowed a laptop in class. My syllabus says that laptops are not allowed unless a student is specifically authorized by the disabilities services people.

Gwennyth said...

I actually stopped bringing a laptop/pad to conference sessions for a similar reason...

undine said...

turtar--The policy allows for those with documented disabilities to use a laptop. I haven't had anybody take me up on it yet, though.

Gwennyth--Good for you. I always wonder whether those who sit and then start furiously typing are disrupting the concentration of the speaker ("did I say something good? something stupid?")