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In my opinion

Should laptops be banned from class?

Younger generations are reverting to a pre-industrial multitasking work culture.


Another week sees another fulmination against laptops in the classroom by a teacher. This time it’s an American college professor writing in a professional educational bulletin. He has given up on these devilish devices in his classes. They are banned because they inhibit class discussion and allow students to disturb each other – and who knows what they’re looking at on those things.

When most teachers look out on their charges these days, they often see, not the beaming visages of those eager to learn, but the crowns of their heads as the students lean over their keyboards, their faces partly blocked by the flip-up screens. It’s a new learning environment and most instructors are not amused. Indeed, many of us have probably considered banning electronic gizmos of all kinds – cellphones, iPods, laptops and even some calculators – at one time or another.

The pedagogical villain here is something called multitasking. Our students think they can send e-mails and do online banking or gaming while taking lecture notes. Most instructors, especially older ones, disagree and are quick to point to studies proving that concentration is lost when multitasking.

Yet, I wonder whether something else is also at issue here. Consider how people worked in the pre-industrial era. Labourers in agriculture and construction sang on the job. Weavers composed poetry to the rhythm of the loom and many skilled artisans employed a boy to read to them while they worked. Everyone talked on the job and took unscheduled breaks quite frequently. In short, they laboured away in a multitasking environment.

Then, two and a half centuries ago, the industrial revolution began. Manufacturing increasingly was performed in factories for monetary wages. The employer purchased the worker’s time and demanded a strict focus on the task at hand.

Factory workers were subjected to a new discipline. In addition to prohibitions on drunkenness, assault, theft and improper language in the workplace, there was a new set of rules that had to be obeyed. Typically the rules included no whistling or singing, no talking, no staring out the windows and no leaving the work bench without permission. Disobey, and the worker risked a serious fine to be deducted from wages.

In short, the early factory masters and bosses were no-nonsense, profit-driven capitalists determined to put an end to pre-industrial multitasking work patterns. Over the past two centuries, they have been largely successful in driving out these “bad” habits of the workforce.

The same values have been inculcated by the comprehensive educational systems of modern societies. What did we learn in school besides the “three Rs”? We learned to pay attention and sit in one place for long stretches of time. We learned to be punctual and to keep quiet when the teacher was speaking. After six or seven generations of the industrial and school system experience, most of us have so internalized the new work ethic, we have forgotten that the traditional world of work was a multitasking environment.

The world of industry also had its analogue at the university or college: the lecture hall became a place of mono-tasking by way of note-taking in a book or on a clipboard. Then came the dreaded laptop, the sinister, unanticipated machine that disrupted everything.

Now, students have their own portable windows to stare into, their own songs to listen to, their games to play and messages to send to friends inside and outside the classroom. All the while they are seated at their work benches – oops, sorry, their places in the classroom – and presumably also taking notes from an instructor.

So now I’m having to rethink my position on laptops in the learning process and the option to ban them. Is it a purely pedagogical issue or is there something else in play here? Perhaps the generation of successful mono-tasking geezers doesn’t know any other way of getting results and has unwittingly internalized an industrial work ethic. Meanwhile, a younger generation has started to revert to a pre-industrial multitasking work culture, one that largely was extinguished in the industrial revolution that began more than two centuries ago.

By all means, let’s do rigorous studies to determine the quality of learning in a multitasking environment. But let’s include an awareness of deep-rooted, perhaps hidden, cultural values that such inquiries will involve.

Fred Donnelly teaches history at the University of New Brunswick and does allow laptops in his classes.

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  1. Shari Graydon / August 20, 2010 at 13:08

    I haven’t taught regularly for a decade and so was astonished (and, I confess, a little insulted) to experience the sea of laptop-shrouded heads recently when speaking to a class about post-university job opportunities. Although I find the multi-tasking argument above provocative, the examples given — singing or being read to while engaging in manual labour — aren’t persuasive. Listening to music or talking books is easy to do while cleaning, driving or drawing, which don’t require the simultaneous use of language. But in my own experience, absorbing intellectual content requires a degree of attentiveness not supported by such competition. If I were teaching today, my own inclination would be to devise a test administered at the start of the term: I would reserve the last 15 minutes of the first lecture for a quiz designed to measure absorption and retention of the material covered. The results might help individual students make their own decisions about whether or not open laptops were in their self-interest.

  2. David Calverley / September 10, 2010 at 13:32

    I’ve taught university (undergrad history and Faculty of Ed.), and secondary school. Laptops are banned. The author’s argument is unconvincing. They are not multi-tasking. They are wasting time. Multi-tasking implies that playing games, checking Facebook, etc. are meaningful tasks. They are….relaxation is necessary. However, they have nothing to do with a history lecture. The students are not listening to your lecture while they examine a relevant image, or scan through relevant documents that relate to your talk. That is multi-tasking.

    Since I’ve banned them students have told me that they get far more work done in my class because they are not distracted. I’ve also asked students I taught in a faculty of education….”What do you do on your laptops when you are in class?” They’re response: sometimes they work, most often they are just screwing around. This is from students who already have undergraduate degrees. They know it’s not a cultural value. Perhaps the author needs to do a bit of fieldwork before he pronounces on the utility of laptops in the classroom.

  3. Fred Donnelly / September 22, 2010 at 22:26

    I would like to repsond to Mr. Caverley’s strange reading of my article. Contrary to what he states I am not ready to defend multi-tasking so lightly. My article was a call for proper research on the subject—research which like all quality research will try to take account of cultural values. The thesis of the article is contained in the last paragraph. Perhaps Mr. Caverley missed the point but it’s the same one he makes in his comment.

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