Laptops in the classroom? A reasoned response.

Short answer: yes, if it works for your teaching, and no, if it doesn’t. Used selectively, they can really help. But “selectively” has proven to be the key, at least in the classes I teach.

I’ve been teaching with technology for a long time and have adopted new technologies as they emerged.  When laptops started being common in classrooms circa 2004, I took a wait-and-see approach.

“Wait” is a lot of what I did, actually.

Me: “Student, what did you see in this passage?”
Student: [Looks up from laptop and stares blankly at me.]
Me, repeating the question: “Student, what does X mean by this phrase?”
Student: “What? Where are we? I didn’t hear the question.”

Buoyed by the hype surrounding laptops in classrooms–because at heart I’m a tech enthusiast–I waited. I watched this process unfold for seven years before addressing it.

I watched student participation slow down. I wanted to believe the hype, but I wasn’t seeing the benefits emerge. It’s not the students’ faults; everyone has trouble staying focused with a ready source of distraction available.

(And no, doodling on paper or looking out the window isn’t the same thing. These are students communing with their own brains, not someone else’s, and I have no problem with that. There’s research to show that this may actually heighten the listener’s awareness.)

Then I limited the use of laptops in classrooms except under certain circumstances. I explained why, and I said that three hours a week was not too much for all of us to devote to talking to each other about literature. We still use laptops, but on selected days.

Here’s the principal result: More engaged students and better class discussion. Better retention on quizzes. Better analysis in papers.

TL; DR: I wanted to believe that the experience would be enhanced with laptops, but the opposite proved true over 7 years. Your mileage may vary, but that’s why I limited laptop use in my classes.

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