Wed 22 Mar 2006
And interesting article today in USAToday about a law professor who banned laptops in her classroom. Of course, the students are pissed. And they should be. On the one hand I think it's fine for professors to control the environment in which they teach – within reason of course. That's the job of a professor after all – to pass on knowledge and experience in the best way possible.
On the other hand, professors who do things like ban laptops seem to have a surprisingly thin grasp of the contexts of learning. When students' using laptops makes professors uncomfortable it's probably because it conflicts with their cultural conception of classroom behavior. A student should sit with a pen and paper, maybe a book, and pay attention to the front of the room, just like they did when they were students.
Of course, the contexts of learning, especially in higher education, are quite different now than they were then. Wireless internet in particular has changed the classroom experience. At the iSchool it is commonplace for students to sit in lectures with laptops out, a fact which has been appalling to some folks I've told about it. Often, it's true, there is some distraction from email and the web, especially during those less than scintillating moments in class. But the fact is that laptops and connectivity have led to powerful new modes of learning. Take, for example, Sarita, Sarai, and Steve's ClassChat Project as well as Jen & Matthew's project, both of which explore the implications of the 'the backchannel', an Internet Relay Chat (IRC) channel that is active during many of the iSchool's courses. They are proving that the backchannel has all sorts of interesting sociocultural functions that are entirely about enhancing comprehension and retention.