Laptops in class help or hindrance?


Laptops in lectures can distract both users and others around them, research has shown. But banning them is a bad idea, as they have important benefits that universities and professors should consider, some researchers say.

When Faria Sana started her undergrad at McMaster University just over a decade ago, she and most of her classmates took notes by hand. That’s how it was always done; no one thought anything of it. But as she ambled toward graduation, she noticed a shift in her classrooms. Laptops appeared. Each year there were more of them, more classmates scrambling to type each word their psychology professors uttered. “All I remember was that the clicking of multiple keyboards was so loud that it sounded like it was raining,” she says. “That alone was distracting.”

But laptops bring more than just noise. Personal computers have flooded the market for more than two decades, but it was in the 2000s that laptops became classroom mainstays, as batteries improved, technology became more powerful, and, frankly, some etiquette fell out of fashion. Given that this coincided with the rise of wireless Internet, the glut of laptops has brought a world of distractions to class; students can now get lost online with ease that would once have been considered unfathomable.

Dr. Sana, herself now an assistant professor of psychology at the distance-learning-focused Athabasca University in Alberta, was centre stage for this, one of the biggest shifts lecture halls have ever seen. And so, given that her research looks at learning through the lens of cognitive psychology, she studied it.

The result was a 2013 paper, published in Computers & Education and co-authored with York University’s Tina Weston and Melody Wiseheart, which found that multitasking on laptops distracts not just the multitasking student, but students around them, too. The study, now frequently shared and cited, prompted a wave of news reports and fear mongering: Some professors have since even banned laptops from their classes.

But outright banning laptops – and their newer, lighter compatriots, tablets – may not be the best answer. They can make lectures more accessible, provide tools for interactive learning, and perhaps even convince professors to shift how they teach.

Dr. Sana was a graduate student at McMaster in Hamilton when she and her colleagues from York embarked on their laptop research. Previous studies, she says, relied largely on self-reporting and correlational research, with mixed results. They wanted firmer data, and to find it systematically. Their research consisted of two experiments. In the first, undergrads brought laptops to a mock lecture, and half were given a list of tasks to complete during it, before everyone filled out a questionnaire about how much they could remember about the lecture. The multitaskers scored 11 per cent lower on the test.

In the second experiment, students were stuck in lectures, too, and half of them were in full view of other students surfing online.

The students stuck behind multitaskers scored 17 per cent lower on a post-lecture test.

This, Dr. Sana says, shows the fallout of laptops in the classroom: “You’re responsible for your own learning, but your actions in the classroom can affect your peers’ learning even more.”

This added to a growing pile of studies on note-taking – such as, for instance, a 2014 article called “The Pen Is Mightier than the Keyboard” in the journal Psychological Science, which found that handwriting notes helps memory, because it takes longer than typing, forcing students to comprehend and condense what they learn in lectures.

But Dr. Sana’s paper was never meant to be a call to arms against the new era of note-taking. “We had to constantly say that it’s not laptops that decrease learning, it’s that people use them to multitask,” she says. “We know technology can be really good for learning, especially for differently abled students, and you have to take that into account.”

Robin Kay, an associate education professor and graduate program director at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) in Oshawa, believes that laptops in the classroom shouldn’t lead to blaming students – it should force professors and lecturers to embrace the new reality and teach more effectively.

Lectures, he says – especially when they drag on for a few hours – encourage student boredom and multitasking by design. “The short answer is using these tools effectively in the classroom – and if you don’t, it becomes a distraction,” Dr. Kay says. “It inhibits learning. They’re not going to listen to the lecture for too long, then they start to drift, and then they multitask.”

Dr. Kay has studied laptops at length – UOIT, after all, billed itself as “Ontario’s first laptop-based university” when it opened in 2003, long mandating students to own a laptop for classes.

In a 2014 study published in the Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology, Dr. Kay and Sharon Lauricella, also from UOIT, found that in spite of the inevitable distractions of laptops in class, students reported in-class benefits 30 per cent more often than challenges.

Students in engineering and other hands-on programs will naturally benefit from having immediate access to industryspecific software on their laptops in class, but for most classes, Dr. Kay says, it’s wise to use lecture time for more collaborative work – which, coincidentally, laptops readily enable. “The adherence to a lecture-based approach is almost religious,” he says. “What laptops are doing is frustrating professors enough that hopefully there’ll be change.”

Encouraging students to use laptops and other mobile devices to collaborate in and outside of class, such as through Google’s suite of free education apps, is where professors and lecturers could be focusing their energies in a more meaningful way, Dr. Kay says.

“It’s how you use the laptop. If you don’t use it for focusing on learning goals, then it’ll become a distraction. My students say this in my master’s course – ‘You keep us going, so we don’t have time to be checking our Facebook,’ because they have to produce something,” he says. “I liken it to when I was a camp counsellor: You keep the campers busy, and if you don’t, they go all over the place.”

Since her major study was published, Dr. Sana has been regularly called to speak to classes to discuss laptops and taking ownership of their inherent ability to distract. And these days, mobile computers are a greater focal point than ever. Now, as a professor at the online-focused Athabasca, she teaches students tethered to machines around Canada and the world. “Here, we emphasize the use of technology, but we do so with precautions,” she says.

Coursework, she continues, can be “monitored, structured so it’s hard to switch from one app to another. And we try to make lectures we post online engaging, so students don’t switch back and forth.”

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