One science professor achieved minor YouTube fame recently when a video surfaced showing him freezing a student's laptop in liquid nitrogen, then smashing it on the floor. The professor commanded: "Don't bring laptops and work on them in class!" (I wonder how many university students watched that video during class.)
A lecture, by definition, is a method of teaching whereby a person talks and an audience pays attention. But a laptop is an interruption machine that fragments attention. Lectures and laptops are incompatible activities.
The whole issue is about to get worse. iPads are coming to class. They're harder to detect, because they're thin and flat. They're cheap and fun, so lots of students will have them. And they'll be at least as distracting as laptops.
For many, the issue of what to do about electronic diversions in class is clear-cut: Ban the diversions.
It's true that some -- probably most -- students are pretending to take notes while playing Texas Hold-em, chatting on Facebook or surfing the Web for goofy face-plant videos.
Besides, there may be unintended consequences to allowing laptops in class. One is what you might call "second-hand distraction." A recent Washington Post article quoted a teacher who believes open laptops distract students who are behind the user. Another problem is the psychological state of the professor. It can be very unnerving for some to talk to a room full of laptop lids. How does that affect the quality of the lectures?
Unfortunately, the problem isn't as simple as it seems.
While some students are slacking, others are using note-taking tools like OneNote or Evernote, recording lectures and looking up supplemental information. Motivated students are constructing their own accelerated learning systems.
My son, Kevin, is a university student. I grilled him for this column about his use of laptops at school.
Kevin uses his iPhone to record lectures and take pictures of white boards and handouts. He takes notes on his netbook using Evernote. Like many young people, he can type faster than he can write. He embeds his lecture recordings and pictures into the notes, which are augmented by notes taken on the assigned reading. Studying for exams is more efficient, because all content and materials are together in one place, organized by topic.
Kevin shows up for each class prepared for a whole range of activities, from slacking to productive-but-unrelated tasks to accelerated learning -- it all depends on the quality of the lecture.
He points out that lectures run the gamut from "total waste of time" to "too much important information at once." In both cases, his laptop and phone are useful. Some professors ineptly read lectures to the class in a dull monotone, and oftentimes this same information is easily found online. During bad lectures, Kevin uses his laptop to study for other classes and generally do tasks he would otherwise have to do outside class time instead of studying or doing other school work.
During the high-bandwidth lectures, his audio-visual capture and fast typing enables him to not miss anything, and to study lecture content later.
During class discussions, Kevin is constantly looking up things relevant to the discussion, which enhances his understanding and makes him a more informed participant. He feels his time is wasted by uninformed peers who don't look things up and talk only to "score points for participation." In other words, group learning is diminished by other students' lack of laptop use.
If laptops and cell phones were banned, the impact on my son would simply be less learning. His notes would be less complete. He would have less time to do his school work.
Kevin also points out that capturing everything electronically enables him to retain all his notes, lectures and materials even after the final exam. He refers to notes captured in previous semesters with an Evernote search. And he expects to hang on to this material for years. He's noticed that students who take notes on paper simply toss the notes, sell the book and forget everything once the course is over.
I believe that students who are distracting themselves with laptops are the same students who would otherwise distract themselves with daydreaming, passing notes, reading other things, doodling or skipping class.
Banning laptops won't force slackers to pay attention. It only hurts the motivated, tech-savvy students.
Why Laptops Are Better than Lectures
Journalist, professor and blogger Jeff Jarvis gave a TED talk recently, which brilliantly attacked the whole lecture format as a relic from the industrial age, where students are "widgets" being turned out by an assembly line educational system for an assembly line economy that no longer exists.
Classroom time should be all about "questions, challenges, discussion, debate, collaboration, quests for understanding and solutions," he said.
Besides, the purpose of old-school lectures isn't to learn, but to validate, according to Jarvis -- just like old media's one-to-many broadcasting model. He implied that professors cling to the lecture format out of ego. I think laziness or lack of vision may also be factors for some professors. Video of Jarvis's lecture (ironic, I know...) should be posted in the next few weeks, but he blogged his notes.
Educators clinging to the old lecture method like to pretend that the revolution never happened, as if the millennia-old information scarcity problem hasn't been solved in the past 15 years. The relationship between learning and knowledge has been changed forever by the ubiquity of information.
Shouldn't education change, too?
Google Vice President Marissa Mayer wrote that "it's not what you know, it's what you can find out." If that sounds like self-serving Google-speak, consider that Albert Einstein said essentially the same thing: "Never memorize what you can look up in books."
Nearly all lecture information can be looked up. Today's students can look up or find out about almost anything, especially the content of university subjects. They grasp this intuitively, and turn to laptops because professors are trying to force the memorization of easily accessible Wikipedia content.
One reason students are paying attention to their laptops is that they know intuitively that some professors' content has no value.
Clearly laptops interfere with lectures. But do they interfere with education? Let's engage in an oversimplified thought experiment.
If allowing laptops doesn't affect grades or learning, then it should be OK, right?
But let's say it does harm both grades and learning. It should still be OK. If students' actions lead to failure or low grades, it shouldn't matter if they do so by skipping class, ignoring assignments or allowing themselves to be distracted with a laptop in class.
In other words, if grades are the accepted incentive, and using a laptop leads to low grades, then the incentive should motivate them to stop using the laptop. If students don't care about their grades, they're probably going to get bad grades whether they use a laptop or not.
OK, but what if laptops in class don't affect grades, but do harm learning. What that means to me is that the grading system, which apparently doesn't reflect learning, that needs fixing.
In each of these scenarios, laptops should be acceptable.
OK, that's a wildly oversimplified thought experiment. Let's look at the big picture.
Few would argue with the idea that the Internet, PCs and mobile devices open up massive new opportunities to transform university education. Laptops are windows to vast, unimaginable knowledge. How ironic is it that those tasked with imparting knowledge want to close those windows, rather than fling them wide open?
The education possibilities of the information revolution stand in stark contrast to the medieval "I-talk-you-listen" method.
Some professors treat students with laptops as slackers who don't want to learn. But maybe the real problem is professors who don't want to learn.
Ban laptops? Here's a better idea: Let's ban lectures.