Over at elearnspace, there was an interesting blog post called “Hey You, Pay Attention!” I tried to comment on it, but apparently you have to register to do that and I can’t figure out how. Nor could I find a place to email the blogger… so, I’m commenting here, because this is a common frustration that I hear from instructors.

Laptops are an easy exit point from a lecture. A few years ago, I upset a
series of colleagues when I stated something to the effect of “if students are
distracted in your class, the issue is not with them, but with you as a
teacher”. Apparently, they didn’t agree.

I agree with this perspective. I think there is some truth to the quoted statement, although I would consider a rewording: “if students are distracted in your class, it is possible that the issue is not with them, but with their level of engagement in the class.” Sometimes, a class is very well designed for learning and a student is just not behaving appropriately. I’m sure we’ve all seen a student nod off in class or just put their head down and go to sleep during class. This is not appropriate behavior in class either.

First, some thoughts on the laptop during class issue. Before you dismiss laptops and Internet use in the classroom as completely inappropriate, you have to think about how you would develop instructional techniques around every student actually having a laptop. That day is probably not too far off.

I developed a classroom strategy a few years ago regarding laptops that has served me well. When a student has a laptop open in class, I try to view it as an opportunity rather than a personal insult (and I wonder if students realize that many of their instructors view it as a personal insult to their teaching). An open laptop on the Internet means we can gather information from the WWW that we would not normally have at our fingertips. Are you showing an application problem involving airplanes? Ask the student to look up the speed of a typical 747 trip so that you can use it in a problem. Are you taking about Leibniz notation? Ask the student to look up some history about Leibniz and then share it with the class. Are they taking notes? Ask them if they wouldn’t mind sharing a copy of the notes with you to put up on Blackboard for a student who is absent.

Either they were really paying attention, can provide the informtion, and you’ve enriched the class appropriately … OR they were not paying attention, have been called out, and are not likely to be goofing off with a laptop again.

Second, let’s look at that issue of engagement with the learning that takes place in the classroom.

Last semester, I started posting video lessons on every topic for my F2F (face-to-face) students. The videos were originally recorded for my online students, but I couldn’t come up with a justification for not letting the F2F students have access too. After all, our goal is to teach students in ways that engage all sorts of learners, right? But when I shared the videos with the F2F students, I had to seriously think about my in-class activities. If all we do in the classroom is provide information (open head, pour in information) then we am not providing anything that the students cannot get from a textbook , a video, or on the Internet.

My classes have been evolving over the past few years to a much more social environment. In my calculus classes, we typically spend at least 50% of the time doing activities, group work, and board work (see my article Back to the Board). In mathematics, all the textbook publishers are scrambling to make videos teaching all the materials in the textbook. What happens when those video libraries are complete? If being in the classroom “live” has no more draw than watching the video, then educators will be out of a job very soon. What do you do in your classrooms that engage students in ways other than just presenting the information?

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