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Laptops in the Classroom: A Dialogue

Laptops in the Classroom: A Dialogue

Below is an email exchange about laptops in the classroomI had recently with a friend of mine who teaches undergraduates in a university setting. I wanted to share it because I don’t know that we’re addressing these issues with faculty as effectively as we might; people like me, who work with collaborative applications and the internet, aren’t always invited into the spaces where these conversations occur. I’m aware that there is a vocal and adamant contingent of faculty at most if not all Canadian and American universities who are seriously distressed by the way students use laptops in class; I also know that there is another contingent, perhaps less powerful, perhaps less vocal, who are uncomfortable with the arguments in play and don’t necessarily want to ban laptops from class.

I’d like to engage in this conversation more often.

To: Rochelle Mazar
Subject: Lament for the iGeneration

You may have seen this, but I thought of you. I just CANNOT DECIDE if banning laptops in the classroom is the answer. It feels like a hostile, uncooperative, fatalistic, pessimistic move when laptops are only going to become MORE pervasive and part of our daily lives, not less. However, even my best students are often giggling away on IM’s instead of participating in a classroom discussion. I am really torn. I know some universities have tried to ‘unwire’ just lecture halls, but now students can use iPhones or other devices for WiFi, so it really is moot. However, even if they claim to just use their laptops for notetaking, how can they resist surfing? I couldn’t! I need to figure out how to simultaneously embrace the information age and keep my students tuned in at the same time!

From: Rochelle Mazar
Subject: re: Lament for the iGeneration

It’s not exactly a zero sum game. I think we’ve been teaching the same way for so long, and isn’t really terribly effective. So students have been finding other ways to entertain themselves in lecture since…well, probably since the beginning. There are really good ways to use even things like IM as part of the experience…better to be active while listening than passive. So one way to deal with it is to accept that it’s there and use it. Twitter could be really good for that; collective note taking. (There’s a variety of collaborative note-taking applications out there now, too.) Another is to target the people who are using their computers a lot during class and get them to look things up and report back to you. The OED is aweesome for this. Yet another; send someone to the library’s website and ask whatever vital infomation questions you have ongoing on virtual reference. Get the library into your classroom in every possible way.

But in the end: it’s not your job to make sure they pay attention. You can only do your best. If they choose to check out, whether with IM, facebook, crossword puzzles, etc., that’s their decision. Teachers generally have a lot of control/power issues around “what’s done in my classroom”, and I understand that there’s a certain policing role involved. But a long as someone isn’t actively distracting others, I think they’ve made a personal decision that you just can’t hold yourself accountable for. They’re adults, after all.

That said: I’m someone who can’t attend a lecture without communicating what I’m hearing and thinking about it in some way while listening. If I have an internet connection, it will be via Twitter, IM, or both. Sometimes also IRC as well. If I don’t have an internet connection, I will whisper to the person next to me. I don’t know if people think I’m not paying attention, but I surely am. In fact, if I’m completely silent, I’m probably not paying attention or didn’t learn anything that interested or inspired me. Engaging in some way with others online is actually the best way for me to learn. It took a long time for me to figure that out!

Not that most undergrads are as engaged as I am. But they could be. And the internet connection in the room could be the thing that helps foster that engagement just as much as it could be the thing to distract from it.

To: Rochelle Mazar
Subject: re: Lament for the iGeneration

Ah, I wish you could come into our faculty meetings! There is a huge faction now who literally view laptops as devil that are luring their otherwise interested students away from their brilliant and riveting lectures. They whine, “What are we going to dooooo about this laptop PROBLEM!” About half the department now has BANNED laptops in class. They stroll in, drop the briefcase and announce, “Hello class, laptops away, let’s start!” It’s ridiculous.

As for me, I have never commented on people using laptops during class, because I have NEVER had a situation in which someone was disruptive or bothered anyone! A lot of them take notes, others chat/facebook, etc. I would be thrilled if they tweeted ideas, but for some reason I think this is rare in my cohort here — I mentioned twitter once last term and asked for a show of hands and 1/80 used it. They seem more into facebook — they are still quite young (most 2nd year). I really do like the idea of asking someone to look up a definition or check a statistic for us — I think I may do this tonight! I also show video clips online and look up things on my own laptop during class, and we’re all in the same boat. I’m definitely looking into the collective notetaking — I think many of the students would be very interested in this, and i like the idea of a backbone of ideas flowing around and holding the class together during lecture! I also like the image of someone tweeting thoughts quietly instead of poking their neighbour — after all — engagement with the subject matter IS supposed to be the goal!

Perhaps soon I’ll try to allow a sort of alternate assignment were students could keep a little blog of thoughts built during lectures and earn some marks for that… though I wouldn’t want it to keep them from participating out loud! That’s the hardest part. For the ones who are genuinely engaging and tweeting thoughts, I need to get them to share them with the class!

So much to think about, but I think banning laptops is ridiculous and will not bring about instant engagement with the same ol’ lecture format… 🙂

Thanks so much for your thoughts!

From: Rochelle Mazar
Subject: re: Lament for the iGeneration

It’s a huge sea change that involves bringing students into the process, and that’s really threatening. I understand that.

Yeah, people 30+ are into twitter, not really the 25 and under set. They don’t really get the idea of sharing your big ideas to make them better…yet. Things to remember: just because they don’t do it in their personal life doesn’t mean it can’t be something they can do for class. 🙂 In my dream world I have a twitter install with a school login I could use just for classes. I don’t care if the behaviour translates into regular twittering (I’m not really into pimping any particular applications), but it would be great if it helps them to learn to listen and read critically and actively.

Oh also: I find writing the ideas out makes me more likely to contribute them in person, especially if I’ve “tested” them online and gotten good response first. It’s kind of a confidence-builder.

Most undergrads don’t develop the kinds of online networks that are particularly interested in revelations from class, which is a tragedy. Would be a great project to help them build some.

I guess that might be my job. 😉

I really love the idea that it might be my job to help students create and nurture useful networks. That would be wicked.

Lauren and her Laptop

Lauren and her Laptop


For the most part I’m not that interested in the ad war between mac and PC. I think the mac ads are cute, mostly because John Hodgman is adorable. There’s lots of talk online right now about this ad, saying that “Lauren” is an actor, she never went into the mac store as she said she did, and the PC she got is a piece of crap, etc. Dishonest marketing? Of course! What marketing isn’t dishonest?

When I first saw the ad I went to see what computer she got, and I saw that it was 8lbs and laughed.

I personally don’t care about the mac/pc war because in general I think mac will continue to produce good products regardless, they’re making plenty of money to keep them in business, they’re still producing macbooks, which will be my computer of choice for the rest of the forseeable future. I like to love my laptops, and I love using macs. I generally think that mac is good as a niche; they aren’t going to produce crap computers for the cheap audience, because they don’t cater to the cheap audience. I don’t really want to see them change that priority just to get the greater market share. So as a mac user, I like them having a healthy share of the niche market. Seems perfect to me. So if PC wants to create a persona who “isn’t cool enough to be a mac person”, that’s cool. I mean, if “Lauren” wants to spend 25K on her car but won’t spend more than 1K on a computer, well, maybe she’s really not a mac person.

But in musing about it, the “regular person” technique, a few things are jumping out at me. She wants a cheap, 17-inch laptop. Why 17-inch? Clearly not for professional reasons; the 17-inch computer she got doesn’t have the juice to do any video editing or whatnot. For watching movies? It’s funny, because things are getting smaller these days. Most of the students at my campus have laptops, but the ones who got the bigger ones generally don’t want to lug them around. (And Lauren’s laptop is 8lbs…she might as well have gotten a desktop, really, for the amount she’ll be willing to drag it around.) The smaller laptops are getting more popular because of their sheer usability as portable machines. Netbooks are all the rage because of there incredible portability; we’re entering an era where we’re finally savvy enough about our needs to not always get the biggest and best “just in case”.

Maybe that’s why this ad makes me laugh. Lauren wasn’t trying to get the biggest and best, like we used to, trying to make the most of her investment. She just wanted the biggest, for the least amount of money. Why? This request just doesn’t resonate, particularly not in our current computing climate. Big laptops are increasingly a pain in the ass for everyone who owns one. Currently, the only people who appear to really want a big laptop are professionals who have particular kinds of work to do that requires a big screen and a modicum of portability for presentations. I’m a professional who wants lots of screen real estate; I have an external monitor at work on which I extend my desktop. I wouldn’t want a 17-inch laptop. It’s just not practical.

The only laptop I regularly move around these days is my beloved netbook, which gets online and plays all my favourite tv programs for me while I’m on planes, trains and automobiles. I can sit at the bar and check my email on my netbook, and still have room for my dinner and my beer. I get more comments on that netbook than I’ve ever gotten on all of my macs put together. People love the idea of a usable, small, cheap laptop. If you’re a coolhunter, you’re probably looking at small, fast and cheap. You can buy gigs of space on USB drives for peanuts these days; why spend hundreds for a big internal hard drive? Small hard drive, small physical computer, big RAM, bloody great OS (Ubuntu, anyone?) No one’s that excited about a big laptop running Vista, no matter how cheap it is.

Apple is often a bit a head of its time, sometimes painfully. They got rid of floppy drives well before it was a good idea (even I had to buy an external in the 90s). They took out the phone jack in the last few years too; that’s what pushed me to give my dad my old wireless router so I could still get online when I was visiting. They’re usually on the right track, but they pull the plug on things a tad too early. They keep you slightly uncomfortable with the things they declare as dead. But why is it that microsoft always seems to be, just as painfully, a step behind? Everyone else is talking about cheap, fast and small, and they give us an ad about cheap, slow and huge?

Why I like my Netbook

Why I like my Netbook

I’ve been puzzling over this, because I love my netbook (eeePC) more than I expected to. Now, I do like some gadgets, but only when I can see an application for them in my life. My first gadget was a second generation ipod. The moment the ipod came out I knew that was the gadget for me. Until then I would open up SoundJam on my clamshell ibook on the bus between Toronto and Guelph, stick in my earphones, and then close my ibook with my thumb inside it to keep it from turning off, and listen to my tunes. Ipods had moved into their second generation by the time I found the cash to get myself one. Now I have a cellphone as well, but I didn’t really feel that connected to it until I discovered text messaging. Now text is what I mostly use it for (other than calling my mom). It’s basically my mobile AIM client. I don’t have an iphone (data is way too expensive in Canada to make that worth it for me). I have a PDA, given to me by my employer, but I don’t use it anymore.

So why do I love the netbook so much?

It really turned my head around. Using it made me see one possible future for computing, and I’m intrigued. It’s a fairly powerful little creature, with a gig a RAM (could be better, true, but not bad), but without much storage capacity. It has 16 gig of storage space, which is more than twice what my first ibook had, to be honest. But in 2009, 16 gig is smaller than my current ipod’s capacity. So I can’t keep my tunes on it, I can’t put movies on it. I can’t put tons of software on it, either. It’s not exactly a digital “home”.

But then, what if things turn around and we use less and less software client-side? I can use google docs right now for all that word does. (My eee, running Ubuntu, has Open Office on it, however.) I can use splashup or others to edit images without a client. I can use meebo for online IM. I love twitter, and I can get a client for that on my netbook, but why bother? the online interface is pretty simple and easy. I don’t really need a mail client, since both of my main email accounts (personal and work) have decent web clients. What software on my computer do I really need?

As for storage: both my dad and Jeremy taught me important lessons in the last couple of months. I gave me dad a digital photo frame, and it accepts SD cards as well as USB flash drives. Why would he even put his pictures on his ibook? My netbook allows me to upload pictures to flickr directly off an SD card. Given how cheap SD cards are getting, my dad could buy new ones for each trip he goes on. What used to be a transient storage method (that cost serious dollars) is now so cheap you could just leave the data on them. He could have 16 gigs per trip (twice a year) and just store the cards. That kind of storage capacity is just never going to be feasible inside a computer. Talk about extendable.

Jeremy bought a 64 gig flash drive to store media on. It cost him $100. I paid more than that two years ago for my 1 gig SD card. My netbook has three USB drives. If I bought three 64 gig flash drives and plugged them in, my netbook would have more accessible storage capacity than my current macbook. If I bought as many 64 gig flash drives as I needed to partition my data, my netbook would have unlimited storage capacity. I could keep all my tunes on one drive, movies and TV on another, work docs and software on another, etc. I don’t want to have to open up my computer to add more storage. I’d like to be able to just plug it in. The size of those flash drives is only going to go up; I bet my netbook would have more storage capacity than my work and home computers put together pretty soon.

My netbook makes me think about a world where my computer is just a portal to other things, not a location in itself. Any computer can do that, sure; the netbook is just more upfront about it.

Also: my netbook fits in my purse. It’s low profile makes it perfect for use while sitting in cramped economy seats on overnight flights (Jeremy and I watched a lot of british television while on our overnight flight). I wouldn’t have to turn sideways to use it on a greyhound. It’s perfect for taking minutes, mostly because it’s so small that typing on it doesn’t hide you behind a screen. It’s great for the bar, which provides free wireless to patrons. I can use it and still have room for my meal. I can sit in a crowded auditorium and tweet about the keynote I’m hearing. I can connect with other conference goers without having to carry a whole computer with me. And if something terrible happens and it breaks? I’m out 300 bucks, not 1400. And because I don’t store anything on it directly, I didn’t lose any data. It’s a sturdy thing too, since it’s all flash memory and no moving parts.

It’s a form of casual computing that I really like. It’s the kind of gadget I would take with me while wandering around town, in case I wanted to stop and look something up, or blog something, or get in touch with someone via email or IM. It’s perfect for conferences. Why carry your whole life with you when you can just bring a relatively cheap little portal instead?

The small screen: completely not a problem. I thought it would be, but I adjusted to it really fast. I think Jeremy did too. When I returned to my macbook, it felt bloody HUGE. We’re getting spoiled by huge screens. There’s a time and a place for them, sure, but is that all the time?

The small keyboard: takes some getting used to, but I like it. I don’t have huge hands, though. (I don’t have small hands either.) Jeremy I think struggles with it more, but I can type pretty well on the reduced QWERTY. It’s just a matter of getting used to a new keyboard. But I don’t think I would suggest that it’s a keyboard to do all your writing on. It’s more a casual keyboard. This presumes that people have the cash to have more than one computer (something with a bigger screen and a big keyboard, and this little guy), but to me, the netbook is a nice addition to my computing family. I suspect I won’t be traveling with my macbook as much as I used to.

Anyone in the market for a beautiful black leather computer bag? I don’t think I’ll be needing it anymore.