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Engaging Students Through Their Laptops

As more and more faculty begin to flip their classroom, design blended learning experiences, and think about a hybrid model, it is important to consider how students use their technology.  In today’s college classroom, students are not only able to escape paying attention through daydreaming and crosswords, but also by text messaging, browsing millions of webpages, watching streaming videos, and updating social networking sites.  (for more background on this topic, please refer to “What are students really typing?”)

From your position at the front of the room you may notice that the laptop itself creates a physical barrier between you (the instructor) and your students. Furthermore, your students recognize that from the front of the room, you (instructors) can’t see what is happening on their laptop screens. This situation provides a lot of incentive for students to wander away from class-related activities.

Additionally, this means students around the laptop-user can become distracted as their eyes are drawn to web content on the nearby computer screen.

Notably, however, according to a recent PEW Research report students who checked email and distracting websites did not score lower than their less distracted peers did on homework, quizzes, or exams. Only one activity created significant negative correlation with performance: instant messaging.

This reinforces the notion that many students are effective multi-taskers, while tasks that demand constant attention (like IM) are detrimental to student learning.

The problem is many of our students use laptops legitimately, so anytime we ban laptops, we are cutting off the ability of students to do that. So it’s a decision that should be based on data rather than misconception.

Lectures that are taught interactively have been shown to improve student learning. Whether instructors are engaging students through Chromebooks, laptops, or traditional clickers, how effective the instructor is at facilitating interactivity determines how students are engaged.

Laptops enable students who are fast typists to take more comprehensive notes, curious students to quickly search for more information, and, with the right tools, confused students to seek clarification from teaching assistants or classmates.

There are many ways laptops can improve a student’s educational experience. The key to preventing students from spending the entire class on distracting websites is deliberately engaging laptops rather than ignoring them.  I find that the connectivist model of teaching fits perfectly when attempting to engage students through their technology.

Banning laptops eliminates the potential of such technologies as powerful learning tools, and it is unlikely disengaged students will begin to pay more attention. They are still able to find distractions via mobile phones, nearby friends, the student newspaper, or even an open window.

Instead, encouraging students to engage with the class via technology increases student attentiveness, student engagement, and promotes active learning. Students will act rationally and pay attention in class if incentives favor appropriate use of technology.

How do you encourage students to use laptops appropriately during lecture?

This post is part of a series relating to TRC’s theme, “Face-to-Face Education in the Digital Age”.

<– Read the previous post, “What are students really typing”.
–> Read the next post, “Three roles faculty have when incorporating technology into their course”.

About the author: Matthew Trevett-Smith, TRC Assistant Director & Assistant Professor


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