Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Laptops in Class, Yes or No? (Hint: No)



By Professor Doom

     The world is so dramatically different from what it was 20 years ago, it’s shocking. It used to be a big deal to have a cell phone back then, but nowadays not only does everyone have a cell phone (except me, when not travelling), but these phones have literally all the information of humanity available.

      When I walk into a classroom today, nearly every one of my students has their eyes glued to their cell phone. Hopefully they’re gaining knowledge, and if so I don’t blame them.

      The cell phones also beep or whirr or play a jingle every time someone (or some thing) wants to communicate with the cell phone owner…when I look at the class during the lecture, I invariably see at least one student texting away. Considering the student is generally paying several dollars a minute just to hear me talk, I hope they’re making a wise investment to text instead.

       I’ve tried banning the things, but, always, the excuses come up. “My grandfather is dying and I need to know right away when this happens” is a typical excuse, and it’s just not worth my time to try to enforce any such ban, even though I know in my heart the students would be far better off without the distraction. Besides, a student might complain to admin that he’s unhappy with my ban, and then the Dean will tell me not to ban the things…or else.

      It’s not just cell phones, computers have changed. Now some students are carrying tiny laptop computers, with all the power of the phones, and with a keyboard for easy typing. Students with laptops thusly don’t spend as much time texting…but now they’re playing games or surfing the ‘net.

     Again, I really want to ban these things, since I know that’s the right thing to do. And, again, I know admin would only punish me if I tried to help my students get an education.

     A recent article at the Chronicle of Higher Education highlights so many of the problems in higher education right now, albeit inadvertently:


     Just the title is worrisome: when did fear of insulting the class become a part of higher education? More importantly, when did fear of not providing quality education leave higher education?

     It doesn’t stop at the title, however, as the author provides some information about himself:

I’m a professor of human sexuality at Dalhousie University, on Canada’s Atlantic coastline. In my classes we discuss everything from the history of homosexual persecution to vaginoplasty to the cultural importance of Fifty Shades of Grey…in a lecture hall with some 400 students.


     It’s only one paragraph, but it says so much about the state of higher education. I’ve mentioned before how our course catalogues are loaded down with sex courses…human sexuality, female sexuality, male sexuality, adult sexuality, deviant sexuality…so many variants on this one topic.

      Pick up a catalogue from 50 years ago, and you’ll see courses primarily on academic topics, but today the bulk of the campus is devoted to sex, pop culture, and ideological indoctrination. The change comes from admin, who just want to provide courses which please the students.

      Now, don’t get me wrong, sex is certainly something worth studying, as is pop culture (not so much the indoctrination), but we’re teaching this crap in rooms with 400 students at a time.

     So look at three things this article is telling us about higher education. Higher education fears offending the students, provides empty coursework of no value, and does so in massive lecture halls.

      Now let’s talk about having laptops in class. The author gives the usual spiel about how technology enhances education. He tells us we should ignore the empirical evidence every professor can tell you he’s seen with his own eyes: these technological toys are an incredible distraction.

       Again, I acknowledge the toys have their uses…but not in an auditorium with 400 students.

     The professor continues to highlight the issues with higher ed:

Telling them they can’t use their laptops or smartphones in class is treating adults like infants. 


      No, it would be treating students like students. When you go study martial arts, the first thing they do is force you to wear a martial arts uniform. Gee, your sensei is telling you how to dress? That’s treating you like an infant, right?

      No, it’s treating the martial arts student like a student. It’s not infantilizing the student, wearing that uniform will facilitate developing the physical skills in martial arts.

     It’s just common sense. Similarly, putting the toys aside will help the student pay attention, which is a big part of learning something. Common sense, honest.

…if they choose to check Snapchat instead of listening to your lecture, then that’s their loss…


      While there’s truth in the above, why not help the student learn? Why not make it easier for him to learn? Why isn’t the professor taking responsibility for his students? What happened to higher education where it became difficult to make decisions in the student’s best interest?

      Part of what happened is faculty are beaten down. The abuse has been ongoing for so long, that it’s only natural for some faculty to have Stockholm syndrome, and the author is exhibiting the symptoms:

Besides, it’s my responsibility as an educator to ensure that my lecture is compelling. If my students aren’t paying attention, if they’re distracted, that’s on me.


     He actually blames himself! Much like an abused wife figures she brought the beating on herself, so too do we have faculty who think the same way about students not enjoying the work (they call it “work” for a reason…) more than playing on the computer.

     Living in the culture of terror that is higher education, faculty are trained to fear everything they do, as the slightest micro-aggression can lead to a dressing down from admin at the very least.

     So, now we don’t really care about helping students, we care about making the lecture “compelling,” and the professor above is not alone in thinking it’s his fault if he can’t compete with literally all the entertainment in the world sitting in front of the student in the form of a laptop.

The latest calls for a laptop ban were prompted by a recent study of students’ using laptops for note-taking versus note-taking by hand. This is a remarkably narrow view of how laptops can be used in a classroom — and an unfair method to measure an impact on learning.


      Look, I admit that my line about what professors are seeing with their own eyeballs is just a bunch of anecdotes, but here we see the author cite a study saying what we already know.

      And still the empirical evidence of the completely obvious is tossed as he argues for keeping laptops in the classroom. Then we go to the next problem in higher education:

Like any good academic, I decided to conduct a study. Over the 2014 and 2015 academic years, with the help of a teaching assistant, I examined the effects of using the teaching app. We published our findings last year. We ran surveys and focus groups with 1,100 students, and found that the app promoted undergraduate engagement. More impressively, the integration of the app in the course had a noticeable impact on the perceived quality of education and increased critical-thinking skills.


      So, the guy does of his own teaching methods and—surprise!—turns out he’s awesome. Yeah, maybe.

     Thing is, every year when I was at a fake community college, we’d have an Educationist come in and do the same thing. They all have new teaching methods which, in their own classrooms using their own highly massaged data, work awesomely. Admin looks at this study, has no training in research methods to understand the concept of “conflict of interest” and then crams the new methods down the throats of the faculty.

       However, in controlled conditions, every single time, the new method fails, often spectacularly. Of course, the failures don’t get published, or at least don’t get promoted nearly as much…and so these useless methods based on blatantly flawed studies get sold endlessly.

     So, no, I’m not buying the author’s claims here, especially with him exhibiting the pathology of Stockholm syndrome.

     The comments section, key to any legitimate news source, almost entirely agrees that the author is laughably wrong. The sole exception is one graduate student who says laptops in the classroom are fine, based on his own theories.

      I rather expect when he starts teaching, he’ll change his tune. Eyeballs are like that, after all.