Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Laptops, Tablets, Mobiles and University Lectures

A recent article by Susan Dynarski in the New York Times argued that using electronic devices in class was inferior to hand-writing notes and that as a consequence the author/lecturer banned the use of electronic devices in class. (See the end of this post for an edited copy of the article)

Before we get into the merits or otherwise of this argument one major problem needs to be addressed immediately. I'm not sure a ban on laptops would work or be accepted in my university classes. Many students would complain and management would I think take their side and overturn the ban on appeal. I wouldn't do it, however, for other reasons.

The real problem of electronic devices in lectures is distraction - the ease with which students can focus on something other than the lecture. This too is not a new phenomenon. I recall a story my father recounted about a student who would always read a broadsheet newspaper at one of his lectures; while he was talking. When my father asked the student whether he was distracting him from reading his newspaper, the student left at the next break, never to return. There was no way to make this student listen to the lecture. I can remember reading notes and books in lectures that were less than entertaining or informative and I was a reasonably good student! Some students follow Woody Allen's belief that 'eighty percent of success is showing up'! 

As a lecturer I love lecture theatres that have aisles all around the seating. This enables me to occasionally circle the class while talking, forcing students to close Facebook or Instagram etc and at least pretend for a while that they are listening. While this would appear to support  argument, I would suggest that there is not much we can do to make disinterested students concentrate on the lecture, apart from attempting to make the lecture both informative and entertaining. Lecturing needs to be seen as a performance, wherein the delivery style matters for student interest and learning. 

On the topic of etiquette we can continually reinforce one of the most important tenets of lectures: the requirement that there is only one voice at a time, whether that is the lecturer's, or students asking or responding to questions. This is of course hard to police, but actually talking about these things at the beginning of classes helps many students to understand the task. For the recalcitrants, usually a few light-hearted rebukes is enough to silence their peripheral conversations. I've found that a light hearted 'shuuussh' is also very effective. 

A ban on electronic devices would also be difficult to police because mobile phones are easy to use surreptitiously, especially in large lecture theatres. I can't imagine we'll start making students in a 200 plus class throw their phones in a box, even if we could ban the more obvious use of laptops and tablets. The level of opprobrium required to regulate those sneakily checking their phones would create a bad atmosphere in class that would poison the learning environment. 

A simple solution might be the more liberal one of pointing out to students that, according to some important research, writing notes is more effective for learning. Based on this research, lecturers might encourage students to abandon their devices for taking notes. 

It's possible that scholars who once lectured to classes who just listened to their musings, complained when students started writing notes. The world has moved to electronic recording of information and its major advantage is the manipulability of that information. In the transition to widespread access to word processing computers, I regret the 'decision' I made during my undergraduate and PhD studies in the 1990s to keep taking written notes. Because it is not online I rarely revisit that research. I cannot effectively search and manipulate the information into papers, particular projects etc. While I know that there is software that converts written words into electronic text I doubt that existing programs could read my writing. 

While I still write some notes in a notebook and on paper, my major notetaking has shifted online. It would be ridiculous not to do this and while the author suggests students can write notes and then convert them to electronic text, a lot of students wouldn't do this. Once again, students can be encouraged to do this as part of class lessons, but outright banning is a drastic, perhaps authoritarian and retrograde step. 

It might be time for us older people (i.e. those of us who experienced the world of learning before the internet and computers generally) realised that the solution is adapting our lectures and the wider learning environment to facilitate the effective recording of information electronically. This requires lecturers to discuss these topics in classes and encourage student discussion about effective learning strategies. In other words, lectures need to facilitate the taking of notes on laptops, tablets and even phones, for those student who believe it is the best strategy for them. The task is an ongoing one that requires an effective dialogue between students and teachers. Students will need to work out how to align electronic notetaking with better learning outcomes. 

Maybe better quality electronic notepads could seamlessly convert some handwriting into word files, but this is more suitable to those of us who transitioned between the world before and after computers. I think students are too wedded to electronic devices and typing (in its multiple forms) for this to be a widespread option. 

In high school, students use iPads to research and write many of their assignments. Notwithstanding the argument that this is an inferior way to learn, telling them when they get to university that they have to go back to writing notes or simply listening probably doesn't align with the way their brains operate now. It certainly won't align with their practice. Developing written note-taking skills would need to happen in high school for it to be useful at university

Banning electronic devices for notetaking (and engaging with social media!) might work for a few maverick professors with considerable clout and ability to ignore student complaints, but the rest of us will have to think of ways to make lectures more compatible with electronic recording. 

A bigger battle at the moment might be the creeping assertion that lectures are redundant. In a defence of lectures, Molly Worthen points out:
Those who want to abolish the lecture course do not understand what a lecture is. A lecture is not the declamation of an encyclopedia article. In the humanities, a lecture “places a premium on the connections between individual facts,” Monessa Cummins, the chairwoman of the classics department and a popular lecturer at Grinnell College, told me. “It is not a recitation of facts, but the building of an argument.” 
Absorbing a long, complex argument is hard work, requiring students to synthesize, organize and react as they listen. In our time, when any reading assignment longer than a Facebook post seems ponderous, students have little experience doing this. Some research suggests that minority and low-income students struggle even more. But if we abandon the lecture format because students may find it difficult, we do them a disservice. Moreover, we capitulate to the worst features of the customer-service mentality that has seeped into the university from the business world. The solution, instead, is to teach those students how to gain all a great lecture course has to give them. 
While we all need to adapt, the basic lecture format still has merit as a component of more active learning strategies. 

As a starting point for a conversation, I am going to get students to read this in the first week of classes next year. I'm very interested to hear what students will think and say. What might be more important will be a discussion of the wider ethics of lecturing, listening and learning. Hopefully, reflection might help us to develop a new 'social media age' etiquette for university classrooms based on an old idea: respect. 

Respect for students by the lecturer, meaning the lecturer attempts to lecture in as informative and interesting way possible. Respect for the lecturer and other students by all students, meaning that students attempt to listen and take notes in whatever form they like, and avoid distracting themselves and other students by using their electronic devices for matters other than the lecture. 


Laptops Are Great. But Not During a Lecture or a Meeting.

Though I make a few exceptions, I generally ban electronics, including laptops, in my classes and research seminars. 
a growing body of evidence shows that over all, college students learn less when they use computers or tablets during lectures. They also tend to earn worse grades. The research is unequivocal: Laptops distract from learning, both for users and for those around them.  
In a series of experiments at Princeton University and the University of California, Los Angeles, students were randomly assigned either laptops or pen and paper for note-taking at a lecture. Those who had used laptops had substantially worse understanding of the lecture, as measured by a standardized test, than those who did not. 
The researchers hypothesized that, because students can type faster than they can write, the lecturer’s words flowed right to the students’ typing fingers without stopping in their brains for substantive processing. Students writing by hand had to process and condense the spoken material simply to enable their pens to keep up with the lecture. Indeed, the notes of the laptop users more closely resembled transcripts than lecture summaries. The handwritten versions were more succinct but included the salient issues discussed in the lecture. 
Even so, it may seem heavy-handed to ban electronics in the classroom. Most college students are legal adults who can serve in the armed forces, vote and own property. Why shouldn’t they decide themselves whether to use a laptop? 
The strongest argument against allowing that choice is that one student’s use of a laptop harms the learning of students around them. In a series of lab experiments, researchers at York University and McMaster University in Canada tested the effect of laptops on students who weren’t using them. Some students were told to perform small tasks on their laptops unrelated to the lecture, like looking up movie times. As expected, these students retained less of the lecture material. But what is really interesting is that the learning of students seated near the laptop users was also negatively affected.
The economic term for such a spillover is a “negative externality,” which occurs when one person’s consumption harms the well-being of others. The classic negative externality is pollution: A factory burning coal or a car using gasoline can harm the air and environment for those around it. A laptop can sometimes be a form of visual pollution: Those nearby see its screen, and their attention is pulled toward its enticements, which often include not just note-taking but Facebook, Twitter, email and news. 
These experiments go only so far. They may not capture positive effects of laptops in real classrooms over the course of a semester, when students use their typed notes for review and grades are at stake. But another study did just that. 
At the United States Military Academy, a team of professors studied laptop use in an introductory economics class. The course was taught in small sections, which the researchers randomly assigned to one of three conditions: electronics allowed, electronics banned and tablets allowed but only if laid flat on desks, where professors could monitor their use. By the end of the semester, students in the classrooms with laptops or tablets had performed substantially worse than those in the sections where electronics were banned. 
You might question whether the experience of military cadets learning economics is relevant to students in other settings — say, community college students learning Shakespeare. But we’d expect the negative effects of laptops to be, if anything, less at West Point, where all courses are taught in small sections, than it is at institutions with many large lectures. Further, cadets have very strong incentives to perform well and avoid distractions, since class rank has a major impact on their job status after graduation. 
The best way to settle this question is probably to study laptop use in more colleges. But until then, I find the evidence sufficiently compelling that I’ve made my decision: I ban electronics in my own classes. 
I do make one major exception. Students with learning disabilities may use electronics in order to participate in class. This does reveal that any student using electronics has a learning disability. That is a loss of privacy for those students, which also occurs when they are given more time to complete a test. Those negatives must be weighed against the learning losses of other students when laptops are used in class. 
Students may object that a laptop ban prevents them from storing notes on their computers. But smartphones can snap pictures of handwritten pages and convert them to an electronic format. Even better, outside class, students can read their own handwritten notes and type them, if they like, a process that enhances learning. 
The best evidence available now suggests that students should avoid laptops during lectures and just pick up their pens. It’s not a leap to think that the same holds for middle and high school classrooms, as well as for workplace meetings.

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