Friday, February 6, 2015

Unplugging the Classroom

Click for photo credit.

Many professors of a certain age remember the days before cell phones and computers when classrooms were all about the lecture.  Remember overhead carts?  The smell of mimeographs?  Slide projectors?

I was among the first to write my dissertation on a computer (a Commodore 128) and I have embraced technology more or less throughout my career. 

When computers and the Internet came on board, I was able to improve the content of my lectures by delving deeper into content and creating live links in lecture slides that allowed me to explore the Internet live in my class.  I embraced the Internet as a teaching tool and encouraged students to use their computers and cell phones in class to surf the Web and explore content.  After all, I liked to do the same thing at conferences.

At first this approach went well.  Students seemed to follow along and when they were surfing they were surfing course material.  However, I, along with many of my colleagues started to notice a very bad trend.  We started to have students that surfed Facebook, E-bay, Netflix,  and even dating sites during class.  It wasn’t just one or two students.  It was a relatively large number.  Plus, students were texting like crazy during class.

I have never been a control freak in my classroom.  If a student isn’t paying attention, I could care less.  Their loss.  I’ve always felt that students have a right to pay attention or not in class as long as their behavior isn’t bothering anyone.

And this is the issue with surfing the Web and the Internet.

At a recent faculty meeting, one of my colleagues brought to our attention a report that demonstrated that a multitasking student on a laptop and those surrounding the student performed worse on retention and exams than others (for a broader discussion of the report and other issues with laptops in the classroom click here). 

So while I don't care what an individual student does to hurt himself or herself, the behavior online does impact other students.

As a result, this semester I instituted a no phone and no surfing policy in class.  I let students take notes on their laptops, but I hammered home that surfing the web hurts people around them and asked them to only have a word processing program open on their laptops.

The students have been very receptive to this policy.  Indeed, I get a sense that they are more relaxed and less stressed from multitasking during our time together.  They also seem to be more engaged with the material that I am presenting. 

I had clear evidence of this difference last week.

In one class, I had a student add late and he was late to class the first day that he was present.  The entire rest of the class knew of my laptop policy.  When he came in, I was mid-lecture and didn’t have time to explain the policy to him.  He fired up his laptop and the surf was up.  He was typing away on something unrelated to class and I could see in the reflections that he had multiple windows open and was multitasking.  He was paying half attention.  He looked up once in a while, but was hardly as engaged as the other students.  To me, this was clear evidence that I was on the right path with my laptop policy.  He was in an Internet fog while the rest of the class was present with me in a discussion of the content of the course.

I am hardly a luddite and I do see the benefit of students using the Web in classes in some situations.  However, I do not think that a wide open classroom laptop or cell phone Internet policy is good for students.  We only have class together a few hours a week.  There are ways to build Internet assignments into a course.  

Creating an Internet-free classroom is surprisingly refreshing.  I would love to hear from my fellow profs to learn about their policies and experiences.


Unknown said...

While teaching my first food planning course at Columbia U. a few years ago, I was very clear about 3 things - be on time, come prepared to discuss, and no cell phones. It surprised me how much, even in a 10-person seminar course, students would reach - seemingly compulsively- for their smart phones, and when I asked them to put them away, most reacted apologetically, as if they had hardly noticed that they had taken them out in the first place. To me, this issue us all about focus and concentration - as you discuss in your post. What we're offering as teachers is a space within which we can do critical, deep, creative, and important thinking. It's up to us to bring interesting, engaging content, and it's up to the students to take responsibility for their learning and play an active role in the classroom.

Eugenia Manwelyan
Eco Practicum

Bob Brinkmann said...

Thank you for your comment Eugenia. I really like your sentence on what we are offering. It is one of the only times we create this kind of space.