June 2010

Banning Laptops in Classrooms


I am amused by recent discussions in some higher education circles suggesting that laptop computers should be banned from lecture rooms. The argument is that students are using the laptops to view e-mail, look at Facebook, see sports scores, or, I’m sure in some institutions, to check the performance stocks. Some students, to be sure, will use their laptops to take notes in class, but, the fear in academia is that the majority will use their computers for nonacademic pursuits. I’m sure we have all seen examples of these “misuses” of computers in class – I know I have attended seminars where students are doing everything from working on homework for another class to surfing the Web, rather than listening to the seminar. But, I’ve also seen many people taking notes about the seminar on their laptops.

So, why do students surf the Web during a seminar or class? I suspect it is because they find the lecture boring! As a result, they don’t believe they will learn anything, so they do other things that concern them. Whose fault is this? Rather than blaming the students for not wanting to learn or being lazy, I think we should consider another explanation: Maybe the class or seminar really is boring. In a research seminar, we expect the speaker to keep things interesting so the audience pays attention. However, in a classroom, we make the assumption that no matter how we run the class, the students will be engaged and want to learn. But, is this always true?

While we would hope that active learning thrives in the college classroom, quite often, this is not the case, especially when the old-fashioned “stand and deliver” lecture is used. (This is usually accompanied by an endless stream of PowerPoint slides, often handed out to the student for note taking. I once heard the phrase “all power corrupts, PowerPoint corrupts absolutely” at a meeting. Unfortunately, I don’t remember who said this, but they have my undying thanks for making such a memorable comment.) This model of education rests on the assumption that “facts” are the currency of education, and, if we don’t “teach” students the appropriate facts, we are not doing our job.

With the current state of the molecular life sciences, I believe nothing could be further from the truth, and, this is where laptop computers come into play. With a laptop computer and a high speed internet connection (many campuses are “wireless” these days), facts are at the fingertips of every student with a laptop. (I can hear you saying “yes, but Wikipedia isn’t what we want students using,” and I agree – we should be teaching our students how to use the Web appropriately and making peer-reviewed electronic resources available.)

This past semester, I taught an advanced proteins course, and, while not required, many students brought their laptops to class. We did a lot of small group discussions in the class, and each group usually had at least one laptop-carrying student in it. By creating a situation where students could, and usually had to, look up information, find papers and be ready to discuss what they found, both amongst themselves and with the rest of the class, the students were fully engaged and were using their laptops productively.

Rather than talking about banning laptops from class, we should be talking about how to constructively use them to engage students in classroom activities and active learning. As information technology advances, there are many ways that laptops can, and will, be incorporated into classroom activities – ways that keep students interested and engaged in the topics of the course, whether it is accessing information or giving responses to questions in a more detailed way than the current “clickers” allow.

This is my last “regular” column as chair of the Education and Professional Development Committee. Peter J. Kennelly is taking over next month. I would like to thank all of the people I have worked with on the EPD and the Undergraduate Affiliates Network Committee (chaired by Neena Grover) over the years. You are a great group of folks to work with, and you deserve most of the credit for the progress we, as a community, have made in educational and professional development matters in recent years. Thank you.

J. Ellis Bell (jbell2@richmond.edu) is professor of chemistry at the University of Richmond.

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