It's that time of year when students go back to school and the question comes up: Should students be allowed to use laptop computers in class? One year ago, Clay Shirky, teaching media studies (of all things) at NYU, told his students to close their laptops. He concluded that multi-tasking students are not learning as well. He wrote in Medium:

We’ve known for some time that multi-tasking is bad for the quality of cognitive work, and is especially punishing of the kind of cognitive work we ask of college students.

He also found that once he told his students to close their laptops:

(“Lids down,” in the parlance of my department), it’s as if someone has let fresh air into the room. The conversation brightens, and more recently, there is a sense of relief from many of the students. Multi-tasking is cognitively exhausting; when we do it by choice, being asked to stop can come as a welcome change.

According to a documentary on CBC's The Current, more and more professors are banning laptops. It quotes research that claims laptops "may be impeding learning even when they're being used purely for classroom tasks."

I have faced this problem every year at Ryerson University School of Interior Design, where I teach sustainable design. It depresses me, seeing the wall of laptop screens, but I've always concluded that the problem is me, not the students. As another professor tweeted in a discussion about the subject:

In fact, there are a number of issues at play here.

Lloyd Alter speakingMe, speaking at ProfTalks in Toronto. (Photo: Proftalks)

1. It's about how you teach.

I always felt that if my lectures were better, more interesting, more entertaining then my students would pay more attention to me instead of their computers. So I experiment a lot, practice, and try to make them fun. I'm told that I am good at it, but it's hard to compete with Facebook. I've found that if I work at it, then it pays off; I now am on a bit of a lecture circuit and was even asked to do a public ProfTalks lecture last spring that was a big success. Learning how to keep my students awake and interested actually taught me how to speak in public.

2. The system is broken, but we don't know how to fix it.

As I noted in an earlier post about teaching methods, lectures have been done this way since universities started in 1088, some guy standing at the front of the class and the students writing everything down. Really, it's hard to believe that in this day and age with so many means of communication, that students have to get on the bus and drag themselves down to sit in a lecture hall. It's not like I have all that much interaction with them; it's a lecture. However nobody really has figured out an alternative that works.

3. They're not just students; they're adults.

This is a big one for me. This is university and they are grown-ups. How my students manage their time and the way they want to learn is their choice, not mine. How well they do it will be reflected in their grades. If they learn the material and produce good work, then who am I to judge how they do it?

4. Banning laptops is so 2014.

Technology is changing so fast that a professor can ban laptops, but what about phones? They're not in your face like a laptop but can do almost everything a computer can. I do it all the time. And what about my Apple Watch? It can be a totally distracting source of tweets, news and Facebook entries. Technology is changing faster than the rules can keep up. Another teacher, David Kelly, responded to Shirky's article by noting that today our connections to the Internet are as ever-present as the air we breathe, and we had better learn to adapt.

We often talk about how technology can enhance or distract from education as if technology is still something we are granting permission to enter our classrooms. That type of mindset holds us back as the world continues to move forward at breakneck speeds.... Instead of trying to maintain the status quo in the face of change, we need to embrace the changes going on around us, strive to understand them, and adapt our practices accordingly.

5. What's going to university about anyway?

The first question I ask on the final exams for my students is "What is sustainable design?" I'm hoping that one day I will get an answer that actually figures it out — because I haven't yet, and I'm teaching the subject. My job is to teach them how to make responsible choices and decisions about sustainability, to separate green from greenwash, how to think about sustainable design. It's certainly not about listening to me or to any other professor; it's about preparation for life. Or as Kelly puts it:

College is also about prepping young people to be productive members of society in general, to help them navigate the world they will be entering. Well, the world has changed a lot in the last decade. We are a society that is always plugged in, carrying the limitless information of the internet and the connections it enables with us at all times. Maintaining focus in this new world is a challenge, and something people do need to understand how to do.

The world is changing, and the way teachers teach and students learn has to change too. Banning laptops is pointless and counterproductive; this ship has sailed.

Lloyd Alter ( @lloydalter ) writes about smart (and dumb) tech with a side of design and a dash of boomer angst.

Should laptops and phones be banned in lecture halls?
Some professors are doing it, but perhaps they should look in the mirror.