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Wireless in the Classroom – Highlights from the Conversation

Posted by on Friday, September 17, 2010 in News.

On Tuesday of this week, the CFT hosted a Conversation on Teaching titled “Wireless in the Classroom: Is a Ban on Student Laptop Use During Class a Good Idea?” The subtitle was intended to be provocative, and it seemed to have worked. We had over 30 participants in the conversation, including faculty from all around the university. Thanks to our panelists (Jim Lovensheimer, Pearl Sims, and Cherrie Clark) who did a great job getting our conversation started.

Most Vanderbilt students own laptops and many have Web-enabled smart phones.  While these devices have great potential as learning tools in the classroom, many instructors have shared with CFT staff the frustrations they feel when students use these devices to distract themselves and their peers during class.  This topic raises tough questions about classroom management, student and instructor responsibility for what occurs during classes, and the role of technology in learning.  With this event, we wanted to provide the Vanderbilt teaching community an opportunity to share their experiences and perspectives on this topic, learn about options for addressing these tough questions, and think more reflectively and intentionally about their teaching choices.

See our previous blog post for some resources shared at the session, and make sure to check out the MyVU story on the event. Immediately below, you’ll find some highlights from the conversation…

I was struck by the interest many faculty had in helping students learn to pay attention in meaningful ways.  For instance, one participant mentioned how important it is for the medical students he teaches to learn to focus their attention when interacting with patients, particularly when those patients are in pain.  Another participant noted that many students will need to know how to block out digital distractions when they enter the work force or face early terminations.  These faculty see their classrooms as places where they can teach students to focus their attention for long periods of time.  Some ban laptops to achieve that goal, while others let students use laptops but engage their students in discussions about attention and focus.

Several participants felt some responsibility for preventing one student using a laptop from distracting other students nearby.  A few strategies for addressing this were shared, including the banning of laptops, but also designating certain classroom seating areas as laptop-free zones.  Having “lids down” or “screens sideways” times during class was also suggested as a way to prevent distractions when students’ focus should not be on their laptops.

Laptops can be useful for more than just student note-taking.  One participant described a time when a question was posed during class that he couldn’t answer.  One of his students, however, found relevant resources through a Google search on her laptop.  The faculty member noted that we live in an age of information abundance thanks to the Internet.  Blocking access to that information can seem artificial to students, and it can be a disservice not to teach them how to access online information in appropriate ways.  While that teaching can happen outside of class, thanks to wireless technologies, it can happen during class, as well.

Regarding the use of laptops for taking notes, it was pointed out that this frequently cited use might actually be problematic.  If students spend their class time busily transcribing what is mentioned in class without taking the time to make sense of what they type, then they’re likely to leave class without much learning taking place.  Giving students note-taking tools, such as digital or print copies of lecture notes and slides they can annotate, is likely to reduce the “cognitive load” of note-taking, freeing students to spend more time actually engaged in the ideas being discussed.

Derek Bruff, CFT Assistant Director

Photo by Anne Rayner, Vanderbilt University

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