ISSUES IN EDUCATION

Laptops in the classroom

By Wendy Swenson-Roth

Relative to other professions, the tools of a professor have resisted the march of time: lecture, podium and board (white or chalk). However, as laptops and other mobile devices become ubiquitous, the instructional landscape is changing.

It seems a forgone conclusion, at least in primary and secondary education, that learning will improve if every student has access to a computer in the classroom. The uses and benefits of technology in a higher education classroom, however, seem less firmly established.

Robin Kay and Sharon Lauricella [1] describe three pedagogical reactions from instructors in higher education to the laptop culture: reject, ignore or accept. Having never taught at a university with a policy requiring or providing laptops for students, I have pondered the use of laptops in my classroom but stayed firmly in the ignore camp.

On one side, most of my students are so connected to their devices that I feel rejecting laptops opens the door to losing all relevancy in their eyes.

As stated by Carrie Lambert in a 2009 article in Harvard Magazine [2]:

“In the lecture hall, students multitask. With their laptops open to take notes, they’ll also monitor breaking news stories, check a fact on Wikipedia, and arrange their travel plans for the Christmas holiday. ‘They’re wired differently than we are,’ says Rob Lue, professor of the practice of molecular and cellular biology. ‘This is such a digital generation that their expectations, in terms of multiple types of information input, are much different from ours.’ ”

This quote points, however, to one of the reasons I have remained outside the accept camp. Are these devices tools for better learning or just distractions? Do they allow students to surf the Internet when my lecture gets particularly challenging or boring?

This past summer semester I was given a chance to explore this issue. My university created a Teaching Innovations Lab (TIL) containing interactive tablet-based computers for each student. I used the lab to teach an undergraduate business intelligence class. This was an ideal situation to explore using technology to improve learning because in lecture I introduce a number of software applications (Excel, Access, Tableau and Weka). Students were then required to complete homework and exam problems using the software.

This opportunity led me to the accept camp for the semester. Since I was also teaching a graduate version of the same class, I decided to request those students bring a laptop (BAL) or work with another person in the class who had a laptop. The majority of students brought laptops to class, with a few choosing to work as teams.

After committing to using computers in the classroom, I developed classroom exercises that strived to increase students understanding and involvement. This involved introducing an application and encouraging students to follow along. Students were then given exercises to work on in class, which allowed for time to address individual questions.

When the semester ended, I wondered why I hadn’t tried this sooner. In the graduate class, access to a laptop was less of an issue than I had expected. Only one student discussed the lack of access to a laptop, and I was able to provide a computer for the student.

I was not able to prevent unwanted surfing. Even in the TIL, where I was able to view what students have on their screens, off-task behavior occurred.

At the end of the semester, I surveyed students: How often were you distracted and spent time on the laptop doing non-class related items (such as on the Internet, etc.) while material was being covered in class?

Approximately 67 percent of the TIL students and 62.5 percent of the BAL students admitted to occasionally taking part in off-task behaviors. Frankly, I wondered what the response would be if asked the same question about texting or daydreaming. I believe it is difficult to prevent all off-task behavior whether students have laptops or not. It is my job as an educator to be as engaging as possible and to help students learn to use their laptops at appropriate times.

BAL vs. TIL

In the TIL, it was helpful to have all the students use the same devices with the same levels of software loaded on them. However, if there are no issues with different versions in class, you can expect some problems when students transition to their personal laptops for homework. I received more last-minute e-mails from panicked TIL students who had procrastinated and not loaded the required software on their home devices. Homework was due the next day, and they were having software problems. Similar issues had been resolved earlier in the BAL class since they needed to load the software for use in the lecture. Basically, the TIL environment was easier in class and harder for homework.

In general, the chance to work with the software was viewed as positive by the students, regardless of whether a computer was provided or not. At the end of the semester, some comments from students about the strong points of the course included:

  • “learned different tools in Excel, Access, Tableau, and other programs”; and
  • “exposure to different software and online applications, Tableau, data mining programs, etc.”

These comments were similar for both classes.

The main complaint students had in the BAL class dealt with access to power. Most classrooms weren’t designed for students to bring laptops and lack enough conveniently located plugs. Since my BAL class sessions were five hours this was especially pronounced.

Then there is the Windows vs. Mac issue. Any BAL class will tend to have a mixture of both, so I needed to check that the software used ran on both and was able to provide some minimum support for both platforms.

Conclusion

Looking back on the semester, I believe accepting laptops in my class helped the learning process. Student performance and use of the software applications improved over previous semesters. In addition, I covered some more difficult applications that I hadn’t used in the past. Student feedback indicated that having access to a laptop while I covered the material was helpful.

More research is needed to continue improving the integration of laptops. This includes development of additional assignments to take advantage of the devices and explore ways to measure the outcomes on student learning. It is equally important to help students develop classroom etiquette when working with devices.

Based on my experience from this summer, I can now say I am in the accept camp. When the fall semester started, I requested students in all my classes bring their laptops along with them as I continue to work on ways to improve learning.

Wendy Swenson-Roth is a clinical assistant professor of managerial sciences in the J. Mack Robinson College of Business at Georgia State University.

References

  1. Kay, R.H.& Lauricella, S., 2011, “Unstructured vs. Structured Use of Laptops in Higher Education,” Journal of Information Technology Education: Innovations in Practice, Vol. 10, pp. 33-42.
  2. Lambert, C., 2009 (November-December issue), “Professor video, visual, audio and interactive media are transforming the college classroom,” Harvard Magazine (http://harvardmagazine.com/2009/11/new-media-transform-college-classes).