Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Surprise surprise! Laptop multitasking hinders classroom learning for both users and nearby peers

What should we do about laptop use in class (or desktop use in a lab)? This is a common question that challenges both lecturers/teachers, and students. From my side of the classroom all I can see are the backs of laptops or computer screens. I of course don't see what the students are looking at. Many are following my notes/examples on their own screens. However, I also know that some are on Facebook or checking email. But it could also be that they are checking up a definition of a term I use, or looking for a translation of a word, or trying to find background information. I no longer insist that students switch off their laptops or mobile phones - they could be using them for learning. My only problem is with the misuse of technology in my classes.

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However, a recent publication by Sana et al (2013) provides some evidence that multi-tasking, by attending a lecture and using a laptop at the same time, is detrimental to learning. The study showed that students who use a laptop during class, or are near another student who is using a laptop, scored lower in tests compared to those who were not multi-tasking. So what do we do?

I agree with the authors of the study that a "ban on laptops is extreme and unwarranted" and that it "cannot be overlooked that laptops foster positive learning outcomes when used appropriately". The laptop is now an important tool for learning in the classroom. I met a student in another College recently who told me that one lecturer there does not allow students to use a tablet computer in class to follow notes downloaded from a VLE. The class were forced to PRINT OUT the lecture notes and bring them to class! No distractions from laptops in that class! Sana et al (2013) provide some suggestions for dealing with laptops in class:
  • discuss the consequences of laptop use with their students at the outset of a course
  • explicitly discourage laptop use in courses where technology is not necessary for learning
  • provide educators with resources to help them create enriching, informative, and interactive classes that can compete with the allure of non-course websites, so that students are deterred from misusing their laptop in the first place

Ultimately it is our own responsibility to manage our learning and teaching. If you bring a laptop to class and spend the entire lecture on Facebook, then you are being irresponsible because not only are you learning very little, you are also distracting others and consequently impacting on their learning as well. For us teachers, if we allow technology to be used in class - then we should lay down the ground rules in advance or perhaps find ways to incorporate the technology into student learning.

Sana, F. Weston, T. & Cepeda, N.J. (2013) Laptop multitasking hinders classroom learning for both users and nearby peers. Computers & Education 62 24–31. Accessed 9th October, 2013 at:

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