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In my opinion

Turning the lure of the laptop into a positive classroom experience

There are ways to have technology serve the teacher’s goals.


After more than four decades as a university student, professor and administrator, I retired recently and moved into the sage age where I can now offer unsolicited (and undoubtedly unappreciated) advice to ex-colleagues on how to be better at what they do. Today’s lesson is the use of technology in the lecture hall. Should laptops be banned, as some exasperated academics are now proposing? Uh, no.

This misguided idea comes from a noble, if self-centred place. We professors have important things to tell students and we want their attention. Trolling Facebook and its multiple online cousins is an obvious distraction from the class at hand. Notwithstanding students’ well-known ability to multi-task, they are bound to miss something critical when they allow their minds to wander – away from us.

Or are they? Our fear of being ignored is less a comment on the disruptive effect of electronic gadgetry than on our failure to rethink the use of the large lecture. For reasons of efficiency and cost, academics are slaves to this mostly anachronistic teaching model. We have huge classrooms that must be filled by hundreds of students with nowhere else to go if they hope to encounter a live professor. And a single instructor is obviously the budget-friendly way to deliver a course.

We rationalize this approach intellectually by treating students as adults and giving them the right not to attend. We may even post our lectures online, making it unnecessary for them to do so. We encourage those in the lecture hall to ask questions, but only a handful generally do. And many universities no longer provide smaller tutorial or seminar discussion groups to accompany the large lecture, which reinforces this one-dimensional teaching model.

Please don’t misunderstand. I think excellent lecturing is valuable and admirable. Deeply learned and charismatic presenters who can creatively engage students week in and week out are heroic. But let’s be candid. They are a distinct minority. Some lecturers are masters of content and dreadful communicators. Others are better at entertaining than enlightening students. In all likelihood, most are middling orators and decent, if ordinary, assimilators of knowledge in their teaching fields. Effective classroom instruction requires some degree of acting and when do aspiring professors ever get that training? They learn how to teach through trial and (probably too much) error.

This was all known and tolerated in the pre-Internet age. There was one main way to teach and learn. Professors defined and delivered both essential and required knowledge. Students soaked it up, raised the occasional question and reiterated what they had learned on final exams. At its best, this system provided strong grounding in a particular discipline. At its worst, it was a dull, pedestrian endurance test for both professor and student.

But this single-minded teaching strategy, which is still employed, surely won’t do any longer – and students know it. They will go through the motions of meeting the instructor’s requirements, but learning opportunities are being missed if available teaching tools are not used more creatively.

Students require laptops to take notes, which they can organize in ways that best suit them, so banning them in the lecture hall is foolish and unfair. Computers can be used to view original texts or images, to which professors are alluding, during the lecture itself. Tweeted questions can be taken up immediately, or be the source of in-class discussions during periodic – and necessary – breaks in the lecture. The class may evolve into a less linear but more dynamic and interesting forum. Sheer gimmickry and noisy free-for-alls should be avoided, so the professor needs to manage as well as instruct, but there are proven ways of having the technology serve the teacher’s intellectual goals rather than detract from them. The challenge is to channel the tools to that purpose. Treat the laptop as your friend not your enemy.

But doing so requires deeper learning about the potential of these high-tech instruments than most faculty, particularly veterans, have been prepared to undertake. Too few take advantage of teaching-support services that most institutions now offer. The big lecture hall is not going anywhere in the near future. Nor are laptops, smartphones and their yet-to-be conceived offspring. Those of you not yet retired should immerse yourself in this new world of teaching and learning. If you do so successfully, your students will be genuinely engaged and you will find those great big classes more rewarding than burdensome.

Lecture concluded. Class dismissed.

Paul Axelrod is professor emeritus in the faculty of education at York University and co-editor of Making Policy in Turbulent Times: Challenges and Prospects for Higher Education (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013).

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  1. Kay Johnson / December 9, 2015 at 13:43

    Good article by Dr. Axelrod: Retirement has obviously not slowed his analytic thinking nor his wit. His unsolicited advice appreciated by this reader.

  2. Alex Lowy / December 10, 2015 at 16:14

    The bulk of learning for adults is a self-directed, intentional,searching, sense-making, organizing activity. Teaching for so many of us consists of gaining and holding the attention of a room full of students. In an odd way then, the classroom setting creates a battlefield for who is in control of the learning process – teacher pushing or student pulling?

    The use of online electronic devices in the classroom by students challenges the prof’s attentional dominion. As you point out, barring them from class is not a real option. The cat is out of the bag, the genie is out of the bottle. If Siri can give you a good answer in a nanosecond, then learning how and when to turn to Siri is a legitimate option and skill. Wikipedia, Facebook and D & D are all available through the one device. Control is gone.

    Networked computing is forcing transformation of countless industries, and education is no different. OK, we lose the battle for classroom control, but so what! More important is enabling the overall learning and skills/knowledge acquisition experience. It’s Paradigm Shift time! Learning is more than ever now a partnership where we each play a role.

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