Using laptops in a lecture

Using laptops in a lecture

When I was an undergraduate, I was one of the first kids in my classes who started regularly bringing a laptop to lectures. At that point, laptops weren’t even all that commonplace among the students, though their numbers were growing rapidly, and you certainly did not find a lot of people trying to take notes on them.

Often, it was quite difficult to take good notes on a computer, especially for professors who drew a lot of diagrams or wrote a lot of complex mathematical notation; but I got a lot of practise trying to keep up with Linguistics and Theory of Computation classes, and I eventually became quite adept at switching back and forth between a word-processor and a graphics program* in real time.

At first, both professors and other students were skeptical about the idea of having laptops in the classroom. I was careful to ask my professors if they minded me taking notes this way, and though some of them were reluctant at first, most of them warmed to the idea once I showed them the finished product — it was always legible, could easily be updated and reorganized, and was trivial to print out or e-mail to others, and they seemed to like that.

The principal complaints I received were from other students, who didn’t like the clicking of keys; but these were rare, and since I usually sat right up in the front row (next to the power outlets), most of my neighbors were of the diligent note-taking variety themselves, and did not object.

Over time, more and more laptops began showing up in classes all over campus. Not only are they good for taking notes, but they also provide a convenient source of distraction from boring lectures — and I was hardly the only person to have noticed this convenient combination!

But it’s hard to get away with that sort of thing if you are sitting in the front row, because everybody can see what you’re doing. One person quietly playing a game will almost never disturb a lecture, but when everybody else starts watching over his shoulder, there’s a kind of ripple effect that spreads out through the classroom, and a teacher would have to be dumb as a post not to notice it, and localize the source by following the trail of glazed eyeballs back to its origin.

Most laptop users quickly gravitated toward the back of the classroom, where nobody could see what they were doing.

Fast-forward a few years to find me standing at the front of the classroom, with my laptop hooked into the projection system instead of sitting in my lap. By the time I started teaching classes on my own in 2001, I think the majority of the undergraduates owned laptops of some variety, and plenty of them were bringing their machines to class, though even in computer science classes today only a minority do this.

There was one major change, however, that made an enormous difference in the way laptops affect the classroom experience, and that is wireless networking. If I wanted to check my e-mail during class in 1995, I had to whip out an Ethernet cable and plug into the wall. If I had managed to do this discreetly at the start of class, that was fine; but otherwise, it was pretty obvious what was going on.

Today, anybody can hook up to the campus network from virtually anywhere, at virtually any time. This means that any student with a laptop could, at a moment’s notice, be checking e-mail, downloading music, surfing the web, exchanging instant messages with their friends and family, playing an MMORPG, or any of a countless number of other distractions from paying attention and taking notes.

I suppose I could take offense at such distractions, but as long as the distraction is confined to the person wielding the computer, I don’t really mind. After all, they’re the ones who bought my time, and if that’s how they want to use it, who am I to complain? But the amusing thing is that you can almost always tell the difference between a student who’s using the computer to take notes, and one who is goofing off in some other way. Some typical patterns of behaviour recur throughout the population:

Game playing (puzzle or falling-blocks type games) Symptoms: Intense concentration on the screen, but without eye movement to suggest that the person is reading. Repeatedly tapping a small handful of keys, or clicking the mouse a lot. Really intense players will sometimes forget themselves and twist their shoulders or make a face when they screw up. If they wear glasses, you can often see the game reflected in the glass. 

Game playing(FPS, RTS, or RPG) This is actually pretty rare; students usually go in for more self-contained games; but I have caught a couple of students playing a game of Unreal Tournament with the sound turned off. Symptoms: Intense concentration on the screen; rapid eye movements from point to point, but not scanning like a person reading. Lip biting is common, and if the other player is in the classroom, meaningful glares or glances may be exchanged. 

Instant Messaging & E-Mail Symptoms: Intermittent screen focus, punctuated by short bursts of typing. That in itself does not preclude note-taking, but usually IM is also accompanied by smiles and nods while looking in the direction of the screen, and occasional quiet laughter or other expressions of emotion. It is often difficult to distinguish IM from E-mail, when seen indirectly like this. 

Web surfing Symptoms: Little or no keyboard use, apart from short (10-20 keystroke) bursts sufficient to generate a Google query or fill in a password. Web use is characterized by large quantities of mouse usage, clicking and dragging and fingers moving on the scroll regions of trackpads (a distinctive motion, when seen from slightly above). One really strong giveaway for web usage is a series of rapid changes in the brightness of the light reflected on the user’s clothing from the LCD, as they go from page to page.

Unfortunately, it is still far too easy for others to be distracted by these activities, and the effect of a particularly juicy web page on the attention focus of a class is similar to the result of putting an electromagnet next to a compass.

Such a distraction can really throw a teacher off his rhythm, and getting the class’s attention back can sometimes be tricky. Still, I try to be as sympathetic about it as I can, when it occurs. Happily, it seems that I am either interesting enough (which I hope) or confusing enough (which I suspect) that I don’t see this behaviour all that frequently.

Nevertheless, I was not surprised at all to read, as The Winnipeg Free Press is now reporting, that laptops may well be doing more harm than good for the students who are using them. You should read the whole article (and keep your eyes peeled for the full results in a forthcoming edition of Computers & Education), but a few quotations from the summary rang particularly true to me:

“Instead of zeroing in on the lecture, students who brought laptops to class spent considerable time e-mailing, surfing the Internet and playing games[…]. Further, the study found a relationship between laptop use in class and a weaker understanding of course material and a lower overall course performance[…].

Checking e-mail during the lectures was the most common distraction; 81 per cent admitted to this transgression compared to 68 per cent reporting that they used instant messaging. Forty-three per cent reported surfing the Internet, while 25 per cent reported playing games, the study found.”

When you also take into account the fact that these are self-report data (“The laptop users reported in weekly surveys[…]”), it seems likely that the true figures are even higher — that is to say, worse.

So what should be done about this? Is this an epidemic that threatens the very fabric of the academic world? Should we, as the University of Victoria has done, ban the use of laptops in the classroom? Should we take legislative action? Call in the Marines? Hold a rally? 


I think not: In fact, I think the correct response to this problem is to do nothing whatseover, unless in direct response to complaints from other students in the class.

At private universities, the students are our paying customers, and if they want to decrease their grades by an average of five percent, who are we to say no? In the words of a good friend of mine, who is also in the teaching profession:

“Education is strange. Where else does the consumer try to get as little as possible for his money?”

But as strange as it may be, they are the customers, and as long as they are not harming other customers by doing so, I see no reason to interfere. If other students were to complain, my first solution would be to ask the laptop users to sit in the very back of the classroom, so that nobody else would see what they’re doing.

That would probably be the first time a teacher had specifically asked a student to sit in the back, unless we count the whole dunce-cap and switching crowd from the early days of American public education, but it ought to fix the problem quite neatly.**

Meanwhile, it seems as if we’re more or less back where we started, before laptops became a regular fixture of collegiate lecture halls: There are some students who pay attention and take notes, and others who snooze, or stare off into space, or play around on their laptops.

Heck, I know plenty of faculty members who do the same thing during colloquium talks. So, unless we want to risk the cardinal sin of hypocrisy, this is one of those matters upon which I figure it’s better to live, and let live. The economics of education will work out just fine in the long run.

Besides, isn’t Free Cell better than snoring?