Laptops, students, distraction: hardly a surprise
This post grew out of a comment responding to the question, “What Restrictions Should Student Laptops Have?” It’s of interest to me because I’m a graduate student who teaches English 101/102 and takes classes at the University of Arizona. In addition, this post dovetails nicely with “Desktops versus laptops.”
I hadn’t realized that the questioner in the original Slashdot post referred to high school students who would keep the computers.
The short version: leave restrictions or lack thereof to the teachers or instructors.
For background, read Why I ban laptops in my classroom, I Don’t Multitask, professor vs laptop and then Paul Graham’s Disconnecting Distraction followed by Is Google Making Us Stupid? in The Atlantic. If Paul Graham finds the Internet ceaselessly distracting, what hope do freshmen have? I hear from friends that they feel like they can’t go more than a half hour without poking around the Internet, which hurts their writing time. Given all this, I suspect laptops in general and Internet connectivity in particular might cause greater problems than those they’re designed to solve.*
While I sympathize with the points of some pro-laptop comments, I will point out that paternalism is not always bad; sometimes it’s a necessary component of developing discipline, fortitude, or tenacity. Banning laptops might be one, as it could help one develop the ability to focus for a sustained period of time and not get lost in class, particularly during discussions about complex material. In classrooms I’ve been in—including graduate classrooms—where virtually everyone had laptops, they were used for taking notes, yes. But they were also used for Facebook, and checking out happy hour, IM, and IMing about the incompetence of the person speaking, checking the score, and a variety of other things that promote continuous partial attention.
I know the jokes are coming: you must’ve been a dumb student, gone to a bad school, had bad professor, etc. Maybe: but I think the bigger problem is that letting one’s attention temporarily wander is made so much easier by having a laptop and Internet connection is almost overwhelming. Sure, you can stay on a diet with a chocolate cake in your kitchen. Sure, you’d never lie on that mortgage application about your income—but, you know, you really want that McMansion, and no one is going to check it, and you just have to inflate it a little… The problem is that laptops made distraction so easy. They make it harder to separate the bad professor from the difficult material. And so on.
Students in universities succumb to the Beer and Circus mentality, and if they do, what luck will middle- and high-school students have? I teach freshmen English now at the University of Arizona and ban laptops. I’m aware of the counter-arguments and alluded to them above: if you’re not a compelling enough teacher to keep their attention, they deserve to use laptops to get around you. But what if you can’t get their attention in the first place? What if you’re trying to impart something important but that doesn’t have the immediacy of Perez Hilton? Then give them the Cs they deserve when they write bad papers. And then they whine to you about the grades they got. The Slashdot commenter would be such a strong writer or coder or mathematician that he could get by anyway: congratulations. But the other 24 people in the classroom probably can’t.
All this is to say that laptops can very easily and quickly become more a burden than benefit. But they aren’t necessarily a burden: I could see wanting them for programming classes, for math classes that could use advanced visualizations, for blogging, for exchanging immediate responses among a group, or for editing papers on the fly—the moment you get feedback on them. But not every lesson will call for them and not every teacher will want to use them. “Here’s the dilemma — how much freedom do you give to students?” you ask. The answer depends too much on the instructor to give a firm answer, but I give the answer above in part because so many of the initial responses tend towards “let them do whatever they want.” Sure: and throw someone into an ocean a mile from shore and see what happens. If the teacher wants them to conduct a textual analysis of a Facebook profile, let them. If the teacher doesn’t want them to have Internet access, let the teacher have a kill switch for the room’s wireless router. That way, you’ll be allowing as much flexibility as the situation calls for.
Outside the school, students’ autonomy should be complete, and schools shouldn’t impinge on students’ rights to conduct themselves how they will and complete—or not—their work. Sure, many students will use their computers in ways that seem waste or abuse to adults, but a few will also hack them, use them for self-expression, and let the computers become assistants rather than crutches for thought.
Did you see what Randy Pausch calls the headfake in this essay? It’s partially about students, yes, but it’s really about how to create and how to learn. Computers can help those related processes, but too often they seem to hinder. And when they hinder, they should be discarded.
* I haven’t gone as far as Paul Graham, who describes his solution:
I now leave wifi turned off on my main computer except when I need to transfer a file or edit a web page, and I have a separate laptop on the other side of the room that I use to check mail or browse the web. (Irony of ironies, it’s the computer Steve Huffman wrote Reddit on. When Steve and Alexis auctioned off their old laptops for charity, I bought them for the Y Combinator museum.)
My rule is that I can spend as much time online as I want, as long as I do it on that computer. And this turns out to be enough. When I have to sit on the other side of the room to check email or browse the web, I become much more aware of it. Sufficiently aware, in my case at least, that it’s hard to spend more than about an hour a day online.
And my main computer is now freed for work. If you try this trick, you’ll probably be struck by how different it feels when your computer is disconnected from the Internet. It was alarming to me how foreign it felt to sit in front of a computer that could only be used for work, because that showed how much time I must have been wasting.