Tuesday, February 10, 2015

A Simpler Solution to Tablets and Laptops

David von Schlichten mentioned in his recent Conversation blog post on The Chronicle that he is fine with students using their digital devices to do whatever they want in the class and that it is their choice to engage or not engage. I can appreciate that hands-off approach but I agree with some of the commentators that while it may work for the instructor, it is likely to be challenging for other students in the classroom and they may be distracted. This point was made obvious to me when a student was once caught watching inappropriate material in my class. Granted, it was likely way more interesting than whatever I was teaching at the time, but his peers ratted him out by the astonished and bemused looks on their faces.  

In the last few years, I have enlisted a new tactic in dealing with digital devices that works out well for all parties. At the start of the course and in the syllabus, I provide the following three rules for using laptops and tablets in the course. 

  1. If a student is going to use a device, they must sit in the front center area of the class.
  2. If other students are distracted by non-course related activities, the student will receive a warning (and eventual restriction of use).
  3. At the end of class, the student is required to email me the notes.
Classroom with desks.  Source: https://farm1.static.flickr.com/9/74907741_c2d59deb64.jpg
The first rule means that the students know their peers will be seeing what they are doing and when coupled with the second, they know their peers can hold them accountable.  By sharing the rules to the class, I also make it clear that students should communicate with me if there is distracting laptop use. 

However, the third rule is the most invaluable. I clarify that the notes need to be substantial and not just copying my usually sparse PowerPoint slides. It provides a check and level of accountability that students often thank me for at the end of the course. If students know they need to produce something with their device, they are more likely to stay on task. As an instructor, it’s a great feedback loop about where they are placing emphasis within the notes. It means that if I think subject X was important but they fixated on subject Y, I might need to revisit the material. 

I used to be the instructor who would be quite strict about device usage, but I quickly realized that I can’t remember a time when I have been in a classroom as a student and not been doodling, writing non-class-related notes and ideas and still been able to take substantial notes. I found this approach great in guiding students toward staying on track and also getting quick feedback about what they are learning. It also gives them the freedom to direct their attention as they see fit, but know they need to use the device as a tool for learning, not for entertaining. 

What ways have you found to integrate or deal with digital devices in your classes?