Laptops in a College Class? The Horror!

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In an article that appeared in the March 12, 2018 issue of The Wall Street Journal, reporter Melissa Korn addressed the ongoing debate of whether or not college and university students should be allowed to use laptops for note-taking in class.

Think about that for a minute. Children start using computers in grade school, have classes in “applied technology” (we used to call it “typing”) in high school, use them during their higher education years to search the collegiate digital libraries and to write research reports, and for all manner of everyday consumer uses.

Why in the world would anybody consider banning their use in a college classroom? But they do, apparently.

The WSJ article provided a number of examples where individual professors, if not the school as a whole, prohibit such use. Rutgers, Cornell, Oklahoma State and the Universities of California, Kansas and Connecticut are all mentioned, so we’re taking about some fairly heavy hitters here.

I know why many professors ban laptops in class, because I taught in a liberal arts college for thirteen years, following the conclusion of a long corporate career.

But anybody who has never been in a college classroom, and has spent 25 seconds thinking about it, knows the answer as well.

The issue here is not with the students. It’s with the instructors, who can’t seem to keep the students from checking email, going on Facebook and otherwise browsing the web during lectures. The instructors cannot stand the personal embarrassment, but they are the ones who are failing to engage the students in the very expensive, very brief and very important exercise we call higher education.

Where to begin? First, let us stipulate that the classroom experience is all about the business of higher education. As such, it needs to be approached by instructor and student alike in as businesslike a way as possible. Perhaps my own teaching approach in the course International Business will serve as an example.

Eschewing the expensive and dry as toast textbooks foisted on so many students, I created my own course — focusing on the principles and practices that, from my own long experience, would be the most important ones for the students to understand and retain.

I made up PowerPoint slides that listed the key points we would cover in each class, and I would use them during the class discussion. I told the students that I would prefer that they not take notes. Detailed slides would be posted on the campus system immediately after class concluded, and I wanted them to be fully attentive to the material as we discussed it. For example, getting a college student to learn how fluctuating currency valuations affect imports and exports does take some doing, and together we would talk through several examples in class.

Some students wanted the flexibility to jot down a brief reminder or two during the class, which was also fine with me. I really did not care whether they used laptops, tablets or good old-fashioned pen and paper.

The class sessions were intensely interactive, since only by constant questioning was I able to understand which students were having trouble grasping the concepts, or if in fact I wasn’t doing a good job of explaining the subject matter. With the topic slides as a backdrop, I walked among the students constantly, asking questions and never, ever “repeating the question, please”.

It was abundantly clear to me whenever a student’s attention drifted. I could instantly see the “Facebook Feed” look in their eyes, and it always became the moment when I would direct a question to that student. Student embarrassment at being caught daydreaming quickly solved the problem.

Despite the obvious benefits of learning from such a marvelously experienced and accomplished instructor as I, the students also cared about their final course grade, and they cared about that a lot.

My grading structure was clear, and set out at the beginning of the semester. The first 40% of the course grade was based upon weekly (yes, weekly) quiz scores. Another 40% was based on their four written research papers. The final 20% was the grade I assigned to them for “course engagement”.

Although the students may not have fully appreciated it at the time, course engagement was really the most important assessment. Being on time for class, paying attention and participating in the discussions, fully engaging with visiting speakers when they came to campus to speak on specific business topics, were but some of the behaviors I wanted them to adopt for their future career success.

Using polite and respectful language, and not drifting off into Facebook land, were additional factors that I considered when assigning that final 20% of the course grade. The students knew it was subjective, and that there was no appeal.

Delivering a course this way involved a ton of effort, both on my part as well as the students, but it appears to have worked. Years later I am still contacted by former students who comment on something they learned in the course that they are currently applying in their jobs. It is gratifying to hear from them.

I’ve met college instructors who simply mail it in, semester after semester. It would not surprise me if they might be the ones who insist on laptop bans.

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