Tips for Managing Laptops in the Classroom

News flash: Student laptops and phones can be annoying in the college classroom. Old news, right? But still news that instructors have to deal with more and more. We can ban devices, allow them, or figure out something in between — there’s no shortage of advice and policies in managing their use. Over the past few months, I’ve been seeing a lot of articles, blog posts, and other bits on the Web about laptop policies, and I’ve found some excellent advice on figuring out what might work best for you.

It’s All About Attention and Distraction

Students looking very attentive to their work in the pre-laptop era.

Students looking very attentive to their work in the pre-laptop era. Though it’s possible that they’re all just doodling in their notebooks. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

“Attention” (and its corollary “distraction”) are the major players of the difficulties with managing laptop use. As we all have experienced by now, laptops have the potential to distract the student using the device, the students nearby, and the instructor, eroding that most important piece of being able to learn: Focus.

NYU professor Clay Shirkey suggests that laptops and phones are devices engineered to distract, since their operating systems and social media platforms depend on getting consumers’ attention.  Shirkey, who teaches social media theory and practice, sees himself as unable to compete with these objects and their software’s ability to snag a user’s attention while in the classroom. He says:

I’ve stopped thinking of students as people who simply make choices about whether to pay attention, and started thinking of them as people trying to pay attention but having to compete with various influences, the largest of which is their own propensity towards involuntary and emotional reaction.

People, he suggests, are biologically unable to resist the ways that our devices are designed to get our attention. As a result, he sees “student focus as a collaborative process,” and that it’s part of his job to help increase students’ chances of being able to focus on the course materials and what’s going on in the classroom, rather than what’s going on out in the ether of the Internet.

So, what is one to do if we’re up against corporate-designed distractions that we cannot hope to compete with?

Make Your Device Policy a “Teaching Moment”

Anne Curzan, an English professor at the University of Michigan (and a blogger for The Chronical) gives her students a brief explanation of her device policy on the first day of class. She identifies with the students (because who isn’t tempted to check their phone or laptop if it’s out during a meeting?) and explains the rationale for not allowing laptops, including recent studies about how students tend to not process information as well when typing notes versus handwriting them.

I’ve also heard of faculty/instructors having discussions the first week or two of class about the course’s device policy in order to let students be in on the decisions about using these kinds of technologies in the classroom. I’ve had this approach (having a discussion with students) work well for other kinds of classroom management issues, so I suspect it would also work for device policies.

Another way to turn class device policies into a teaching moment is to assign articles about the relationship between laptop use and student performance as required reading at the beginning of the term. Dan Rockmore, who’s a computer science and math professor at Dartmouth, does this in his courses, and shifts the issue from that of students having laptops out in class or not to the broader objective of having students “think critically about the use of technology in their lives and their education.” Enabling students to understand why they might not want to have their devices out during class helps model the kind of critical thinking that instructors want students to develop during their time as students.

So…What Kind of Device Policy Should I Have?

Of course, the answer to that question is up to you as an instructor. I’ve had success in my own courses with requiring students who still want to use laptops to speak with me privately about why they need to do so. If a student does this, I’ll let them use their laptop, but for all students who use them in class, I tell them that they must have their WiFi turned off. Others who are more tolerant of laptop use might require students who want to use them to sit in the back of the class (in a lecture) or sit all on one side of the classroom, to minimize the “second-hand” distraction of laptops. I think it’s best to be flexible, and of course, be more strict on paper via the syllabus and relax the policy if need be. I did this in a discussion course that had a lot of readings up on Blackboard to save students the cost of printing everything out. That ended up working well, even in a discussion, especially since this meant more students accessed the readings to make their points.

Ultimately, laptop and device policies come down to thinking about how instructors can provide students with the most effective learning environment — and what that environment is depends on the course, the type of school, the students of a particular class or section, and, of course, the instructor’s philosophies about teaching and learning. So, the question is: What’ll help you help the students learn the material best and how can you help them help themselves?

Is Technology Indistinguishable from Magic? The Dangers of Clarke’s Third Law

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In his 1962 book Profiles of the Future: An Inquiry into the Limits of the Possible, science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke proposed his third and final “law” of  prediction — he felt he had to propose no more laws because “as three laws were good enough for Newton, I have modestly decided to stop [...]

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Doing E-Learning the W&M Way

About this time last year, William & Mary was touted as the best school in the nation for undergraduate teaching. Having sent out several E-Learning Development Kits into the wild over the spring and summer, I’ve gotten more than the usual taste of why, and how, our faculty achieved that reputation. This Summer W&M Offered Our [...]

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New Blackboard Features for Fall 2014

Course Menu button circled in red

Our Blackboard downtime on August 15th was a success. In addition to the needed security updates and patches, Blackboard added some two great new features. Student Preview Mode I’m most excited about the new Student Preview mode. In the past W&M professors who wanted to see what their class looked like to students or how [...]

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How to Effectively Use Blogging in Your Course

Title: Blogging Street Cred
Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/wakingtiger/3156791845/

If you have read any or all of my previous posts, you may have picked up on the fact that I tend to stray a bit from the typical Academic Technology Blog contribution tactic that many of my colleagues take. Sometimes I still find myself seeking to take the student role here at the College, [...]

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More on Web-Friendly Mapping: Google Maps vs. Google Sheets

old-world-map

In my last post I discussed some of the new features and cool possibilities of Google Maps for the humanities at the College. After writing that post, I’ve been obsessing just a bit on the various Web-friendly ways to present map data to an academic community, and I’ve struck on another interesting option in case Google Maps [...]

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RIP Photo Management Application Aperture, Gone but not Soon Forgotten

One of my six large Aperture Libraries… with over 32,000 images!

One of my favorite articles here at the W&M Academic Technology Blog is Mike Blum’s 2012 post “What Do You Do When Your Favorite Tool Goes Away?“ In that piece Mike dealt with, not altogether tongue-in-cheek, the stages of grieving when one of your favorite applications goes away. Specifically he was referring to the early demise [...]

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Project Ideas for Google Maps and the Humanities

WM-google-maps

Google Maps’s newest iteration attempts to combine qualitative and quantitative data into easy to build and manipulate maps. While faculty and students in the sciences and social sciences have been using quantitative data sets in teaching and research for a long time, the impulse to use interactive maps has not quite caught on with too [...]

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Basic Skills for the Information Age: Ideas from the Community College Circuit

Screen Shot 2014-07-10 at 9.41.57 PM

In April, I attended the Council for the Study of Community Colleges’ annual meeting in Washington, D.C. Part of my work there involved co-organizing a roundtable session around the idea of digital literacies in community colleges. Since then, I have published a summary of the session here. Defining Digital Literacy One of our biggest challenges [...]

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Pioneering W&M’s First Fully Online Classes

Prof. Coleman's online lecture on Metabolism.

William & Mary’s College of Arts and Sciences quietly crossed into a new era at the start of the second summer term with the launch of two fully online classes. Don’t be surprised if you missed it; the two pilot classes weren’t advertised or formally announced. How It Started Meetings began last December, and continued [...]

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