Best Practices for Laptops in the Classroom

1137999449_bf3ffa948a_mWe’ve frequently discussed the challenges and rewards of letting students use their laptops in the classroom. The primary concern, of course, is that students will be clowning around on their computers or iPads rather than focusing on the course material. Jason has provided five tips for dealing with gadgets in the classroom, and Ryan has shared his own digital etiquette policy. More recently, guest ProfHacker Jason Farman has shown how he has actually encouraged—with a pedagogical intent—technological distraction in the classroom.

And now, for another perspective on the question of laptops in the classroom, I recommend a new report from the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT) at the University of Michigan. Available online or as a formatted PDF, the report “examined student perceptions of how laptops affect attentiveness, engagement, and learning” among undergraduate students at the University of Michigan.

While portions of the report deal with the specific context of Michigan professors using a proprietary suite of interactive online tools in their classrooms, many of the report’s suggestions for best practices can be applied to any student use of laptops in the classroom.

But before we come to the best practices, what did the researchers discover about how students use their laptops in the classroom? Not surprisingly, 75% of the nearly 600 students who responded to the survey reported that “using a laptop during class increased the amount of time they spent on non-course tasks.” Furthermore, 35% of respondents estimated that they “spent more than ten minutes per class using social networking sites and email.”

As distressing as these figures might be (and they’re not actually distressing to me, who spent much of my class time in college daydreaming and doodling in notebooks), laptops, tablet PCs, and smartphones in classrooms are not going away. The authors of the CRLT study recognize this, and they offer some suggestions for best practices:

  • “Set a laptop policy and communicate it to students” (and the report provides several examples of such policies);
  • “Identify a laptop-free zone in class” (for the students who recognize they are likely to be distracted by other students’ in-class browsing);
  • “Determine how well the classroom infrastructure supports active laptop use” (this is especially important if you are requiring laptops in class).

Finally, the report offers some suggestions for making laptops an integral component of active engagement in the classroom. That is, how can teachers harness the power of computers in the classroom in positive ways?

  • Laptops can increase interactivity (with polling, question posting, low-stakes writing assignments, and so on);
  • Laptops can be tools for “reflection and idea generation” (this is perhaps the most powerful idea from the report: use laptops to turn the classroom into a kind of studio in which students are actively using their computers to solve a specific problem or create something new).

This last point aligns with my own philosophy regarding computers in the classroom: students are more likely to be on task (with or without using technology) if that task is worthwhile, valued by the professor and students alike.

How do you create worthwhile tasks for your classroom? Now that’s a ProfHacker post for another day.

The Clown photograph courtesy of Flickr user Fabio Di Lupo / Creative Commons Licensed

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