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.

A New Yorker goof? WSU doesn’t have MOOCs; it does have online courses

cover_newyorker_80In “Will MOOCs be  Flukes” at The New Yorker, Maria Konnikova reviews research about MOOCs.  Much of it will be familiar to anyone who has read about MOOCs over the past five years, such as the following:

The data suggest, in fact, that the students who succeed in theMOOC environment are those who don’t particularly need MOOCs in the first place: they are the self-motivated, self-directed, and independent individuals who would push to succeed anywhere.

But I was startled to see this:

Even students who succeed in traditional classrooms can get lost in the MOOCshuffle. . . . When Di Xu, an economist at Columbia University’s Teachers College, analyzed data from over forty thousand students who had enrolled in online courses at Washington State University, she found that, relative to face-to-face courses, online students earned lower grades and were less persistent. But not all students fared equally: she found that some subsets struggled more than others. Those subsets were male students, younger students, black students, and students who had lower G.P.A.s. What Xu found, in other words, was that MOOCs were the least effective at serving the students who needed educational resources the most.

To the best of my knowledge, as the English Department’s Vice Chair (hence scheduler) and as a teacher of some online courses, WSU doesn’t offer MOOCs.  “Enrolled in online courses” and “enrolled in MOOCs” are not the same thing, a mistaken conflation of “all online courses are the same”  that many journalists writing on the MOOC phenomenon have made. Even the abstract mentions “online courses” for Xu’s study, not MOOCs.

Although I don’t doubt Xu’s data, which is troubling for what it says about the subsets not being served by online courses, my anecdata from teaching online are a little different.  That’s probably because the courses I teach are much smaller (English 309, Women Writers, is capped at 40; English 402, Technical and Professional Writing and Communication, is capped at 25), and students interact with each other and with me at least twice a week. It’s a hands-on experience. And these courses, which have prerequisites, attract primarily motivated juniors and seniors, so students likely to struggle would probably not be enrolled in them anyway.

While one person’s experience does not a legitimate study make, it does suggest that at least some of what’s being written in the mainstream media about MOOCs needs to be looked at more deeply.