The Real Reason Faculty Dislike Laptops in the Classroom

There is an old joke that I first read in an Archie comic where Jughead is up on the roof of the school on his hands and knees looking for something. The principle, Mr. Weatherbee asks him what he is doing.

"I’m looking for a book I lost yesterday in the cafeteria", Jughead replies.

"If you lost the book in the cafeteria, why are you looking up here on the roof?" inquires Mr. Weatherbee.

"Because the light is better up here." Jughead answers.

What’s my point?

There is a new report soon to be published about a study at Winona State University that purports that laptops in the lecture hall hurt student’s grades.

There is some good reporting and discussion about the report, here, at the Chronicle of Higher Education website.

The first sentence of the Chronicle article says this…

"…Most professors can vouch for the fact that students with laptops sometimes seem a bit distracted in the lecture hall…"

This is my point. It is not that students with laptops are distracted, it’s that before laptops, faculty could not really tell if students were distracted.

Prior to having laptops to hide behind, clever students developed the "attentive and interested" facial expression (at least the polite ones) that is worn at all times in class. It prevents the instructor from calling on you to see if you are listening.

Students have always found ways to be distracted, but laptops are literally "in your face" to the faculty. They are a literal barrier between the faculty and the students.

I have not searched the literature, because I am not sure how I would conduct such a search, but I am reasonably sure that prior to laptops in the classroom, there was not a whole bunch of articles about distracted students.

So does that mean that in the past, students were not distracted? I doubt that. The issue is that laptops have brought to the surface the polite fiction that occurs in classrooms all the time. Faculty teach and students listen or pretend to listen. Now, that pretension is manifest in the student’s averted gaze to the laptop screen and faculty cannot ignore that.

Not everyone with a laptop is distracted or ignoring the instructor, but it seems that way just like the Chronicle writer says in the first sentence of the article that I excerpted above.

So, how do we deal with this misconception that laptops are always distracting (not true) and get to the real discussion which is "How do I keep my students from being distracted by anything?"

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