Lectures, and laptops, oh my! The changing face of student productivity

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By Sol Kauffman

It’s 3 p.m. on a Monday and I’m sitting in my afternoon writing lecture. The professor has been reviewing PowerPoint slides for the past half-hour and my attention has inevitably slipped away from the content of the class. In one open window of my laptop, I’m brewing ideas for the paper that’s due at the end of this week; in another, I’m editing photos for a commercial photo shoot I did over the weekend. In my busy life, this is the perfect opportunity to get some work done. I half-listen to the lecture as I work on other things, perking up only when somebody asks a question.

Most of the seats in front of me are empty, despite the waitlist at the beginning of the semester. Obviously, a large portion of the class is skipping today. Maybe they’re sick, maybe they’re working a part-time job or doing something else that’s important to their lives; hell, maybe they just slept in. In front of me, I see a student on Facebook, another writing in her journal, another texting on his phone. The class consists of only about twenty-five people, and I’ve had courses with many of them before; they’re all strong writers, and I’m confident they’ll all pass this course with at least a B+. It’s not that the assignments are too easy; on the contrary, we’ll all spend sleepless nights grinding away at them. So why are so many of us absent, be it physically or otherwise?

From the ivory towers of university to the hallways of elementary school, technology is exploding in classrooms, and the way people learn in the information age is turning out to be much different than in years past. In my three years as an arts student at the University of Victoria, I’ve watched the university try hard to adapt to the changing needs of students: high-speed Internet, power plugs near desks, and printing labs and computer stations in the library are among the steps they’ve taken. But in light of issues brought up by technology use and the change in learning styles, UVic and many other schools have begun to institute laptop bans and strict attendance policies.

“The use of cell phones, laptops . . . except for the purpose of note-taking . . . is considered disruptive and may lead to discipline from the instructor or the Department Chair,” reads a portion of the UVic Department of Writing policies. “Laptop users should sit in the front of the room for lectures and may be required to refrain from computer use during workshops.”

This is just not the way to deal with the problem.

In the fourth grade, I was diagnosed with Written Output Disorder — a learning disorder that doesn’t affect my ability to understand or process information, but rather my ability to write it down properly. This condition made it extremely frustrating for me to hand-write assignments and tests in class. I would often become irritable or lose my composure when I had to produce written work, despite my oral skills and ability to comprehend the subject. My parents got a written recommendation from a child psychiatrist that I take typing lessons and be allowed to use a laptop in school; since then, I’ve taken a laptop to class every day for my 12 consecutive years as a student. I’ve mostly overcome my output frustrations as I’ve grown, but laptops have always been an integral part of my learning experience. Laptops are such a good tool for recording information, communicating, working, and editing, that it’s practically unheard of for a student to not own one.

Of course, many professors will tell you that they hate having laptops in their classes, that laptops are disruptive, that students are always on Facebook or surfing the web, and that the downsides outweigh the potential benefits. Many times throughout high school and university, I’ve had professors ask me to close my laptop, or to sit in the front of the class, which I find excessive and embarrassing: if I sit in the front row, isn’t my screen more distracting to others than if I sit in the back? Though a lot of professors relax their rules regarding laptops after I speak with them in office hours, it reflects the faculty’s position on the matter.

To be honest, in a lecture, I often am on Facebook, or I’m doing something productive, like working. A lot of the other people in my courses are doing the same. It’s part of how we’re used to using computers: we take in information from several different sources at once and are constantly multi-tasking. We are habituated to the practice of using a computer for several different things at once, and often the content of a lecture course can take a backseat as we run triage on our time.

“Young people increasingly live and work in their technology. Like it or not, they are embedded in it,” says Stephen Hume, one of the writing professors at UVic and a columnist for The Vancouver Sun. “Their artistic entertainment, their work, their research information, their social networking, their classroom work, their communications all reside in the electronic matrix.”

There have been numerous studies that have shown a link between the use of laptops in class and students’ reduced capacity to take in information and memorize it. This has led to support from faculties and professors for forbidding the use of computers in classes. But this is a short-sighted attempt to address the issue.

For one thing, it’s ridiculous to ban a tool that most students are going to spend their entire lives engaging with. “Telling students they can’t open the laptop on which they’ve received their assignment, stored their research and written the essay seems about as wise as telling students then can bring textbooks to class but aren’t permitted to open them,” argues Hume.

By banning laptops, universities must also address the issue of how much professors should police their paying students. If I want to use class time to work on other things — or even to completely ignore the lecture — who cares, as long as I’m not disrupting anyone else? If I sit in the back and don’t make too much noise, I’m the only person missing out.

In second year, I took a music class that focused on computing in music and how digital recording worked. It was very intensive; grasping the key concepts meant asking a lot of questions in class and taking exhaustive notes. Had I tried to pass by simply cramming right before the exams, I would have almost certainly failed. There was a surprising amount of math and physics involved that I had to practise, and as it was, I scraped by with a B. It was a demonstration of a lecture course that really required me to use my laptop to take notes in order to keep up, and one in which I simply didn’t have time to tab over to my web browser during class.

Many people in other faculties, such as Engineering or Science, find that their classes are similar: note-taking is critical, and the material being memorized is directly relevant to working in the field. That said, I didn’t retain much of what I labored to memorize for the exams, and I got a lot more value from the hands-on recording techniques class that the lecture class was a prerequisite for. The point is that, in a class where my laptop was truly necessary, I wouldn’t have been able to get by without it.

The flip side of that is the only other time I really use my laptop is when I’m not engaging with the lecture at all. If the course material isn’t interesting, or isn’t relevant to my GPA, ,then I’m getting a pretty poor return on my tuition investment. And of course I’m going to keep going to class and signing up for these lectures, just like everyone else will: we all know you pretty much need a bachelor’s degree to find work anywhere in the white-collar world.

In second year, I registered for an Economics class as an elective. The description sounded really great: game theory, policy intervention, social choice. I was really looking forward to it as I walked into the 200-person lecture hall and found a seat with a plug for my laptop. I’d gotten lucky: the professor was a good lecturer and the content was pretty interesting.

The problem was that it was on Tuesday nights. That year, I was spending Tuesday evenings running around shooting last-minute photos for the newspaper, and my first-year-out-of-res shoestring food budget meant that Tuesday night’s free Church Dinner at Emmanuel Baptist was a near-must. The reality of it was that I missed nearly all of the classes that semester. With a huge class size and no attendance policy, nobody noticed my absence, and the times I did sit in, I felt like there was no reason for me to be there. After all, the notes were all posted online.

Come exams, I would cram the night before. I walked into each exam feeling like I had the notes down cold, and I did — I passed the course with an A average. And I wasn’t the only one, either; lots of my classmates did the same thing.

I wouldn’t say the class was easy; my math skills have always been weak, and memorizing the specific terminology and logical processes for each test was quite difficult.  But the more time I spend in university, the more my bizarre experience in this class has stayed with me: how was I able to skip nearly every lecture and not only pass, but get an A?

Absenteeism deals with similar issues as laptops. It’s fair to say that skipping class is disrespectful to professors, just like not paying attention is, but from my experience, most people only cut class if they have a reason. A lot of us have busy lives, and there are lots of resources for us to catch up on missed notes; cracking down on absenteeism only punishes students for those times when their bus is late, or their partner dumps them, or they have an important final for another course.

“Attendance is prescribed by the writing department,” says Hume. “Students know the rules. As adults, I expect students to abide by them. I don’t take formal attendance because I think it’s demeaning. This isn’t elementary school. I’m not your authoritarian dad. I know my students by name and I know who’s there and who’s not and how often they are away. Everybody has missed an occasional day for illness, or because real life has intruded into their schedule.” In fact, according to the UVic Department of Writing policies: “Students may miss up to two classes in a single term. A subsequent absence necessitates course withdrawal, or in the event that it is too late to withdraw, the student can expect a failing grade. This is a change from previous years, where students could miss a certain percentage of classes without consequence.”

 

One of the issues is that students don’t bother coming to class if they feel like nobody cares whether they do. In my time at UVic, I’ve skipped countless lecture courses, but very, very few workshops or tutorials.

“The smaller the class, the less I skipped,” says Bryce Bladon, a recent graduate of UVic’s writing department. “I found that I placed substantially more value on classes where my attendance affected the learning of others or where my absence would be noticeable to the professor or lecturer. When my presence was valued, I valued my attendance.”

At the end of the day, banning laptops and making penalties higher for skipping class is a band-aid on the problem of academic apathy. I can’t imagine a professor preferring that people be forced to pay attention to a genuine desire to learn in a class.  Finishing high school and entering university is an important transition in responsibility. Enforcing rules takes responsibility away from students and infantilizes them, and that in turn encourages them to care even less.

“I take the view that my task is to lead students to water, not force them to drink it,” says Hume. “If they choose not to pay attention or participate actively in the class, then they are robbing themselves, not me or the university. So after 19 years of teaching these workshops, I’m now firmly of the ‘less is more’ school of thought when it comes to the instructor’s control of the process.”

Hume also reports higher standards of performance from his students. “The output is better and the quality of work is much better and their sense of communal obligation to one another is much higher,” he says. I feel as though every hands-on course I’ve taken was worth at least twice as much as any other lecture I attended. Of course, it’s not possible for every class to have that element, but it’s important for professors to keep in mind that the more they engage students, the less they have to deal with problems like absenteeism and inattention.

So what’s a university to do when confronted by this problem? You can’t force students to listen up, and they’re so bored in some lectures that they’re actively doing other work. It’s a waste of students’ time and a waste of professors’ time teaching to a silent room. The face of student productivity is changing with technology and busy lifestyles; universities’ approaches to these issues should be changing as well.