Few topics are as trendy as the evils of technology. Each morning brings more stories of how social media is eating our brains and our smartphones are destroying our sleep cycles, our children’s attention spans, and our will to live — and how the only cure is to cultivate a vinyl record collection. The latest demon is our laptops, which are said to distract us whether we’re in a meeting or attending a lecture.
But the suspicion of laptops in the classroom is deeply misplaced. I’ve studied the effects of technology on university students, and I have found that it not only improves learning, it increases my students’ critical thinking abilities.
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. As you can imagine, the conversations can get awkward, especially in a lecture hall with some 400 students.
A tech-enabled classroom was the one way to ensure that every student could participate. But I know too many professors who brag about banning laptops and other devices from their classes. As a species, we’re notoriously uncomfortable with change. Professor tend to resist any initiative from administrators, especially if it is perceived as an assault on the way they have always done things. Sticking it to technology is a point of pride.
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.
The story of how I exploited technology to overcome my particular teaching challenge — the reluctance of students to talk in front of one another, in a large lecture hall, about sexually charged subjects — is instructive. Instead of banning laptops and smartphones, I use them as part of my teaching strategy. It is pretty simple, really: I ask my students to use an app that requires them to follow along and engage with my lectures through their devices. During my lecture, we use the app to poll the class members about their opinions on contentious issues, coordinate discussions that give students the option to contribute anonymously, and encourage problem solving. In effect, they’re saved from distraction because they use their devices for learning.
You may know this style of teaching as "active learning," which involves the professor organizing classes to encourage students to actively participate instead of passively taking notes. It’s a style that started to catch on years ago but only took off with teaching apps that make it particularly effective in big classes.
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 in The International Journal of Technologies in Learning 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.
Laptops, it turns out, aren’t evil. In fact, in addition to using them for active-learning techniques, some professors encourage students to use them in class to conduct research through social media. These technologies promote collaboration and make it easier. They are both research and study tools: More and more students are using digital textbooks and educational resources that are more interactive and engaging and often more affordable than old-school printed textbooks.
Professors need to accept that today’s students are different. They grew up with all the answers available on the internet, and in college they expect a different method of learning. Banning the technologies that are an integral part of their lives is not the answer.
Matthew Numer is an assistant professor in the School of Health and Human Performance at Dalhousie University.
Clarification (12/15/2017, 5:15 p.m.): This article has been updated to include the name of the journal in which the author's study was published.