Monday, 22 September 2014

The laptop and the lecture

Technology in the classroom always comes with a certain dapper flashiness about it; it’s usually impressive, eye-catching and attention-grabbing… on the surface at least. There are of course, many benefits to not just allowing, but encouraging and integrating devices such as smart phones, laptops and tablets into the class or lecture room.  It’s not the principle that bothers me as such, but rather the practicalities of it.

I can’t help but think back to the more rudimentary, less exciting, perhaps more quaint and old-fashioned skills: listening, concentrating on one topic being discussed in one room, note-taking, feeling the weight of a textbook, of the active shuffling between pages for easy reference. Things that don’t seem to happen very much anymore, as if classes have been overcome with a kind of technology-induced laziness, a reliance that seems to rob the incentive to actively engage at that particular moment. It’s almost as if those devices, such excellent tools to search out information, put up a barrier to the more immediate, real engagement and interaction of learning in a class or lecture room. After all, everything can be googled later or lecture notes downloaded so that it can be justified to check messages, emails, facebook, do a bit of browsing; effectively there is no need to fully “be” in the class at all. I know it’s not meant to be like that, but somehow it just is, and it appears as if these devices rob our already divided attention further instead of enhancing it.

These thoughts have been going through my mind since I read Nicholas Carr’s interesting post on Students and their Devices, which lead me to Hembrooke and Gay’s landmark study, “The laptop and the lecture: The effects of multitasking in learning environments” (2003). In it, two groups of students receive the same lecture but one group is asked to keep their laptops (and therefore access to the internet) closed. The group who had free access to their laptops did noticeably worse on a test of the content after the lecture than the group who had to keep their laptops closed. It certainly seems to indicate that we are not as good at multitasking as we may think and that it comes with a certain cost to how information is processed from working memory to longer term memory and ultimately how it is transformed into deeper knowledge and understanding.

Hembrooke and Gay point out, “the ubiquity, pervasiveness and mobility of new technologies encourage a simultaneity of activities that goes beyond anything our culture has heretofore ever known. Indeed, the ability to engage in multiple tasks concurrently seems to be the very essence or core motivation for the development of such technologies…Of course, distraction in the lecture hall or classroom is nothing new; note passing, doodling, talking, completing other class assignments, and even taking notes on the current lecture are all familiar forms of low-tech distraction. However, mobile devices and wireless access in the classroom have the potential to bring distraction to new heights; especially as the study of their effects and benefits is in its relative infancy and schools and universities grapple with issues concerning boundary setting and high-tech classroom etiquette.”

These are certainly words that still hold true today.

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