The Horse, the Buggy, the Automobile, the Laptop, and the Classroom

Laptops.jpgWhen the automobile was invented, many horse buggy riding folks felt disdain for those privileged few who road four wheel machines on the very same roads as their horses. Similarly, when the telephone arrived, many failed to adopt the new communication tool. After all, writing letters was more than adequate, less costly and traditional. Now as the revolution in education begins to put its grip around existing inefficient institutional education, stories such as the one that follows, reflect small minded views of past changes. Like the telephone, automobile and even air travel, among other revolutionary tools, the laptop and its advantages of the Internet come into question in the context of the traditional class room. The real questions should be, "Why do we have a professor and a classroom in the first place?" I hope tip-taps do drive professors insane. Perhaps this will help in unleashing a new wave of learning generated by the elimination of legacy costs associated with existing educational institutions that try and undermine the technologies of the revolution.

Does the Tap-Tap of Laptops Drive Professors Insane?

Robin Raskin - - Thu Aug 9, 2007 7:02AM EDT


The kids will soon be back in those hallowed halls of academia and a good number of them will have their electronic appendages with them. Professors are working overtime trying to figure out how laptops, PDA and cell phones fit into the classroom. Every professor has tales about the downside of laptops in their classrooms. They say that kids turn off their thinking skills and turn it into a touch typing class. Or that the annoying tap-tap of the keyboard drives them to distraction as they try to frame their next thought. They complain about kids who doze behind their open laptop screens (some report looking out on a sea of open laptop cases with logos) and about kids who IM, shop and e-bay to wile away the class hours.  Not all professors think laptops should be ousted from the classroom though; many talk about laptops the same ways they talk about the student's in their class: engage them and they'll be fine.

Campus Tech Fight

A few campuses are fighting back with their own technology. Some rig the campus network to be turned off in class. Some are experimenting with modifying a student's privileges to disable email and web accounts while they're scheduled for classes. Some schools have it written in their policy that students need explicit permission to be on their computers in class.

But aside from a few experimental campus-wide tactics, notebook policy varies from classroom to classroom, professor to professor. I spoke to an English professor at Columbia University (who happens to write about technology for PC Magazine as well) and his answer would have made Hemingway look verbose. "I don't allow laptops in class. Period. Teaching is a kind of conversation, even if one person participates only through facial expressions, and you can't have a conversation with someone who's typing on a keyboard."


Curiosity piqued, I wrote to my son's economics professor at Reed College to ask him what he and his colleagues thought about notebooks in the classroom. "Mixed feelings," he answered. He pointed out the many laptops add to the classroom experience --- supporting arguments and gathering facts (what is the currency in Bulgaria?). Ultimately he felt that Reed College "would make this sort of behavior generally unacceptable by the community, not just the professor."

Another professor at Elon University pointed me to a thread from the Association of Internet Researchers where professors shared both philosophical and tactical thoughts on laptops in the classroom. One described her tactics, which basically amounted to humiliating the students into never having their phones disturb a class again. Another would have laptop time and laptop free time at her discretion. Many spoke of laptop/cellphone policies making it an offense for students to be texting, taking photos, or otherwise misbehaving electronically.


A professor from Virginia Tech told me that she makes sure the laptops are closed during her Q&A sessions, but allows the rest. To her, surfing the web was sort of the modern day counterpart of doodling. And she reminded me that "students think it's a great tool so that they don't have to transfer their notes to their computers later. They can also create files with class notes, Blackboard lectures and more all focused on the topic so it becomes a management tool for learning."