Yesterday, I asked for input on university IT issues and received several emails, Tweets, and talkbacks. The first email in my inbox was about the laptop wall with which so many lecturers are confronted at universities. Since this brings up a whole host of issues, I'd actually like to start a series on it. For now, my take, with a few thoughts from my emailer for good measure.
I'm actually at a meeting today of the X2 Advisory Council. This is a group of users and administrators that our SIS vendor brings together to help establish priorities, consider the product roadmap, and provide additional feedback. Guess what I'm bringing to the meeting? A laptop. So is everyone else. In fact, here I am, sitting around a conference table, eating the free breakfast, and typing a blog about laptop walls.
At least I'm not on Facebook like most college kids in a lecture. I'm also checking email from the office and working on high school scheduling as I attend this meeting, so I'm being productive, but at times I'm not fully engaged. I'm disciplined enough to close up my laptop when it's time to focus. So are all of the other professionals here. Such is not the case for the average college student.
As my emailer pointed out,
... too many of them are using them for social purposes, working on other 'homework' or distraction. I'd be tempted to let them pay no attention and take their own chances, but these behaviors are disrespectful and more importantly distracting to those who can also see their screens.
She's right: unlike in a K-12 setting where software is commonly used to limit non-class-related work, college students are (appropriately) far more latitude. Again, she notes,
...the occasional student is using their laptop to take notes or other activity related to class (I've had a few that do google or find out answers to questions raised in class or offer enriching information).
The key word, of course, is occasional. So do you just ban them? I don't think so. Although my emailer suggested that students need to improve their handwriting anyway, I'm inclined to disagree on that point. Students (whether primary, secondary, or post-secondary) need to be able to quickly take notes on a computer, grab relevant information from the web, and be able to use those notes later.
Killing WiFi would help with the social/distraction piece, but plenty of student would just get a mobile broadband card and wouldn't be able to link to relevant information either.
The alternative is finding a way in lectures to make the laptops tools of engagement. Using them as interactive response tools or projecting a discussion or Twitter feed from the class can at least put the laptops to use and distract from Facebook. Content filtering (perhaps in effect during class hours) could also be effective, but obviously puts a damper on students (unfairly?) who aren't in class.
What's the solution here? Has anyone encountered anything that has worked well? Students, weigh in here, too: what's fair? Obviously lectures should be times when students are listening to and, potentially, interacting with their instructors. What is the best way to facilitate this in the context of the laptop wall?