tisdag 11 januari 2011

No open laptops at the seminars!

my course on social media, it is stated in the criteria for examination and grading that:

I will try to take active participation at the seminars into account, i.e. the fact that you have contributed a lot (talked, asked questions and answered questions posed by others) at the seminars might make a difference if your final grade for the course hinges right in-between two different grades."

Some way into the course I felt that I had a good grasp of who was who - without which the statement above would be pretty futile. Halfway into the course however, I went one step further in my "intrusiveness" in "laying down the ground rules to support the students' deep learning of course materials".

I can't (unfortunately?) control the students' attention, and the fact that some don't utter anything at all during a seminar is, I guess, ok (some might feel shy or that their English language skills is an impediment to full participation). But I actually feel pretty secure in my judgement that if a student has a laptop open and his/her nose inside it throughout a two-hour seminar, that person is a notorious non-contributor to the seminar. Although the physical body is present (and the student will get credits for attendance), the student is mentally not really "there" to the same extent as other seminar participants. Just as some persons are can be rewarded for active participation, others might thus be penalized for active non-participation in the same way (i.e. it might make a difference if the final grade for the course hinges between two grades).

It should be noted that I am only referring to seminars here - students are free to surf as much as they want on the lectures (just as they are free to not attend them at all). Students are not particularly expected to contribute that much to lectures except by (passively) listening - as apart from the seminars.

Instead of stirring things up in this potential hornet's nest and instead of intruding too much into what students might perceive (probably at least partly correctly) the be their own business, I have on the other hand later realized that I could easily have reached the same goal (no computers in the classroom, higher chance that students contribute to the discussions) by physically rearranging the classroom. With one big table in the middle of the classroom where everyone can see everyone else, it is really very difficult for a student to haul up a laptop and start surfing. And if they do, then we just sit in a big circle on our chairs next time around without even having a table in front of us...

I anyway really don't know if this was a controversial decision as there were scant possibilities for students to oppose or discuss the issue within the course itself (except by commenting on the blog post where the new "rules" were stated - which no one did!). What do you dear reader think - is this a controversial decision? I suspected it might be and I therefore supported my position with a couple of quotes from a book we "almost" encountered as course literature (we read a shorter article on the same topic and by the same author; "Is Google making us stupid?"):

"In [an] experiment, a pair of Cornell researchers divided a class of students into two groups. One group was allowed to surf the Web while listening to a lecture. A log of their activity showed that they looked at sites related to the lectures content but also visited unrelated sites, checked their e-mail, went shopping, watched videos, and did all the other things that people do online. The second group hear the identical lecture but had to keep their laptops shut. Immediately afterward, both groups took a test measuring how well they could recall the information from the lecture. The surfers, the researchers report, "performed significantly poorer on immediate measures of memory for the to-be-learned content." It didn't matter, moreover, whether they surfed information related to the lecture or completely unrelated content - they all performed poorly. When the researchers repeated the experiment with another class, the results were the same.


"Psychological research long ago proved what most of us know from experience: frequent interruptions scatter our thoughts, weaken our memory, and make us tense and anxious. The more complex the train of thought we're involved in, the greater the impairment the distraction cause."


" 'the brain takes time to change goals, remember the rules needed for the new task, and block out cognitive interference from the previous, still-vivid activity." Many studies show that switching between just two tasks can add substantially to our cognitive load, impeding our thinking and increasing the likelihood that we'll overlook or misinterpret important information."


"What determines what we remember and what we forget? the key to memory consolidation is attentiveness. Storing explicit memories and, equally important, forming connections between them requires strong mental concentration, amplified by repetitions or by intense intellectual or emotional engagement. The sharper the attention, the sharper the memory"


Hembrooke, H. and Singleton, L. (2003). "The laptop and the lecture: The effects of multitasking in learning environments". Journal of computing in higher education, vol.15. no.1 (september 2003), pp.46-64.

Trafton, J. and Monk, C. (2008). "Task interruptions". Reviews of human factors and ergonomics, vol.3, pp.111-126.

Jackson, M. (2008). "Distracted: The erosion of attention and the coming dark age". Amherst, NY: Prometheus.

Kendel, Eric. (2006). "In search of memory: The emergence of a new science of mind". New York: Norton.

PS (140919): Clay Shirky came around to the same position on this issue as I have.

2 kommentarer:

  1. Very interesting results. I think this could be the same in all kinds of meetings. WE are disuccing it for business meetings for example. Many people do all the things that the students did in the Cornell study.

  2. You are right, I haven't thought of that. It might be ok at (some) business meetings to *not* pay full attention all of the time. I.e. I might go to a meeting but only half of it is relevant to me and I might surf (read my mail for example) during the other half.

    It all depends on what kind of meeting and what level of participation is expected...

    Also, I might go to, let's say, a lecture or a seminar and bring my laptop. I might show up for symbolic reasons (to be seen, to be polite to the speaker etc.) and will then have the chance to choose to listen or to work or to listen the first 15 minutes, then work some, then listen when something interesting is said etc. This "gain" would of course have to be weighed against the fact that I might do two different things will less concentration and might get less accomplished overall... Tough questions.