Six Reasons I Like Laptops in the Classroom — Linda Carson

I’ve stood at the back of a lecture hall and seen the flickering laptop screens: email and Facebook and online poker. I recently heard of a student, braver or foolhardier than most, on Chatroulette during a class. How’d I hear? One of my own students tweeted it from a couple of rows behind him.

As I watched the number of laptops rise in my classroom this year, I made a mental note to keep an eye on their effect. I expected to give a speech, a few weeks into term, about shutting down the tech sometimes to improve our classroom interaction. That’s not what happened.

I didn’t start it. It took me a while to realize it was happening. Now I’m just trying not to get in the way.

  1. Fall 2009, I pause—in full rant—for a student question on a detail. “I don’t know,” I reply. “Sasha, are you online right now? Google that for us, would you?” Another day, the discussion takes us down a side road I think has a lot of value, and I fill a whiteboard with notes. “Who’s connected? Charlie, can you email me a reminder that we talked about this? I’ll update the slides before I post them to ACE after class. Thanks!”
  2. I’m still watching daily for warning signs that students are tuned out behind laptop screens. Wait, look, Evan in the back row just totally disappeared. I plan to talk to him after class. Except that, two minutes later, he jumps back into the discussion, citing the information he’d quickly dug up online about the expansion of the English language between Shakespeare’s time and today.
  3. In another class, I’m barreling through summaries of some cool psych papers. “How many participants were involved in that one?” someone asks. Yikes. I don’t remember. I pasted the abstracts into my notes but not the methods. Google’s not going to solve this, but another student comes to the rescue. It turns out that Shawn’s already logged into the UW library. The whole time I’ve been lecturing, she’s apparently been retrieving the original papers from their e-journals with quick author/year searches. She has the answer at her fingertips, and we move easily into a sidebar discussion of the nature of the participant pool.
  4. A frosh class does a bit of a lame job on an information literacy assignment, so I spring a new one on them in class. “The Economist published an article on H.M. in 2008. In groups, find it, print it, take a picture of yourselves with it and upload that to ACE. Be back here in thirty minutes.”
    4 grinning students, 1 assignment, and the Eiffel Tower
    Photo by Sam Schirm's laptop, used with permission

    Let me break that down: The Economist is subscription-only content, so Google isn’t enough. Each group needs a laptop because they’re going to have a hard time getting a desktop computer in Dana Porter in a hurry. They need to figure out how to connect to the network there and track down the article. They need a WatCard to ransom their output from the local printer. They need a camera and some way to get the photograph off the camera and into teh interwebs.
    The only question I get is, “Do we really have to walk across the Arts quad, or can we do it from the classroom?” No printer here, so go for a walk. Not one student says, “How will we take a picture?” or “I don’t have any way to upload a photo.” Each small team of three or four frosh has enough collective know-how and technology in their backpacks to fulfill this impromptu assignment. Bess, Charlie, Jenna and Sam have time to superimpose themselves on a picture of the Eiffel Tower, submitting their assignment “from Paris.”

  5. Night class. After a slide presentation on mid-twentieth century art, Cayley thinks the Jasper Johns painting looks familiar so she surfs through some of her favourite sites to confirm that it was the backdrop for an edgy fashion spread in Vogue-something-or-other. But the discussion is so lively she can’t get a word in edgewise before I need to move on to the next topic. She pulls out her iPhone and tweets me her observations, complete with the URL. I’ll find it when I get home. Yeah, I’ve got students spontaneously leveraging Twitter as a backchannel way to participate in the discussion without derailing my lesson plan.
  6. Same class. Someone asks me if software is patentable. I reply. David’s eyebrow goes way up. Then he snaps open his laptop and starts typing. I actually pause. It looks like I blew the answer, and I’m waiting for him to call me on it. But David’s a senior student from another program, and he knows you don’t contradict the instructor in class. Later, I’ll get his diplomatic “it’s no big deal but” email.
    I start the next class with a correction, and an apology, and advice: Why not speak up and we’ll sort it out on the spot, if we can?

When student tech gets disruptive or distracting, I’ll take it on. Right now, though, I’m living in some sugar-coated Disney movie of a university classroom, watching a lot of clever people trying—with demonstrably good intentions—to integrate their online tools with my teaching. I can’t wait to see what we do together next.

Linda Carson, Centre for Knowledge Integration


The Centre for Teaching Excellence welcomes contributions to its blog. If you are a faculty member, staff member, or student at the University of Waterloo (or beyond!) and would like contribute a posting about some aspect of teaching or learning, please contact Mark Morton or Trevor Holmes.

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