So I have been thinking a great deal about pedagogy lately, partly because I made the move to a University that focuses on teaching, partly because I am now chair of the department, and partly because I felt that it was just time, that I had a way of doing things and hadn’t spent as much time thinking through whether or not that way of doing things was the most effective, or more to the point whether or not there was reason to change.

My Old Laptop Policy

I used to have a mostly laissez faire laptop policy. I was of the attitude that students could be responsible for legislating their own attention. I was also persuaded by the idea that in most parts of their lives post-college they would be free to have laptops, or even more generally computing devices, out and use them. Indeed even within academia at things like chairs or faculty senate meetings many people have computing devices out. At most points in your life no one tells you you cannot have your computing device, part of being a professional and an adult is figuring this out: when it is appropriate to use a computing device, when it isn’t, and when it is okay to be distracted and when it isn’t. And since I think about my job as broadly speaking an issue of helping young adults become the adults they want to be then it struck me as a bad idea to take control away from them, to actively police their attention rather than teach them how to marshal their own attention. I don’t teach because I want to police people, I do it because I want to help people learn, and at the core of my pedagogical belief is the idea that students learn best when they are in charge of their own learning.

But lately

But the last couple of years I have noticed a distinct difference between class discussions when students have devices out in class and ones in which they do not. A few days I begin experimenting with subtle ways to change the class dynamics. It started by creating an activity that required them to close their laptops to do something, write something down, talk to their neighbour etc, and then transitioned into a discussion. If students didn’t open their laptops the discussion went better, was more productive, more students participated, more engagement, more listening. Things would start to shift once students started re-activating their devices. And I have an attendance policy, students aren’t free to miss class, so maybe I needed a device one . . .

Potential Policies

I suppose their are a range of policies, from the let students do whatever they want as long as they aren’t disturbing their neighbour policy. To the shut off wifi in the room and not allow any devices to be out during class (I guess there is even the more extreme policy of seizing devices if you see them out . . .). No way I would want to go with an extreme solution, making the decisions for the students forcing them to “behave” just wasn’t going to work for me, whether thru technological means (locking the wifi out) or through dictator means (me setting an absolute policy and enforcing).

But still . . .

I kept coming back to wanting to build a better learning environment for my students. And as most of the research now suggests laptops in the classroom can be a serious impediment to learning. I appreciate the digital network, value it, see its potential for social good. But I also recognize that no technology is neutral and that any piece of technology brings with it affordances and limitations. And the limitations of the ubiquitous connection and plethora of screens and distractions kept coming back to me. I won’t spell out all of my reasons here or point to all the research. Mainly though because I don’t have to, because Clay Shirky pretty much wrote that post already, and I would pretty much agree with everything he wrote.

But then again . . .

But then again I really wasn’t ready to commit to a full on ban of laptops in the classroom. I considered Howard Rheingold’s policy of only allowing a certain number of students to have laptops open at a time, something he discusses in Net Smart. But I decided against it. Instead I did something else . . .

What “we” did . . .

The class itself is about digital media, and intro to digital media course. So there is an unusual opportunity in this course to make the issue of attention, distraction, and media not only a policy but a subject of discussion. This class has as one of the texts Rheingold’s Net Smart in which we read the section on attention very early on, as well as discuss some of Cathy Davidson’s work. I began that day by asking them to shut their laptops, turn off their devices as we discussed attention. What followed was a fruitful, and mature discussion about devices, how and why we use them, why they distract us, and what it does to the spaces we inhabit and socialize. And importantly I should say I tried to not make it about “us adults” vs “them kids” which I think is how the debate gets too often framed. I used examples from my own life our experiences where I have been totally guilty of not paying attention.

So, at the end of class I decided, actually sort of more or less decided this on the spot (so this wasn’t totally well thought out) to then make the discussion about what the policy in class should be, make the question: how do we in class want to make sure we maximize attention while still respecting individual choice. Different students expressed different opinions, pretty much everything in Shirky’s piece came up (the issue of not only individual attention, but those around, the spiral effect of once a few check out lots do creating a downward spiral). Then I had them vote they got to choose between two policies.

  1. Individuals in class can freely choose, although thoughtfully so about their own device use in class.
  2. Devices in class are to be turned off, for everyone, unless directly being used for class.

The vote was really close in the end something like 9 or 10 for choice #1 and 11 or 12 for choice #2. So in the end that’s the policy. No device use, except when directly related to the work going on in class. I should probably say that I am not totally comfortable with this, it seems still a bit like students are being forced to behave in a certain way. But I like it because the community chose to have it that way after a fruitful informed discussion. I think one of the things that makes me most uncomfortable though is how close the vote was. So I definitely plan on revisiting later in class, letting them discuss the policy again, and maybe we can even create a laptop zone in class, where students can use devices, but only if they sit in those seats restricting the distractions to one area, so those who know its a problem for them can avoid those seats, and also students would have to pre-decide (before class began), and admit that “hey I want to be able to check facebook,” in effect uping the transaction cost, but still leaving it ultimately up to them.

And all of this might totally fail, as often it does, but hey, then it will just be a reason to have another conversation and re-work things.

(Side note to this whole thing, take it for what it is worth, small sample size and all, but the students who were most vocal about wanting to preserve the overall community of the classroom were all women, and the ones who were most vocal about the more liberal policy were all men . . .not sure if that’s significant.)