No more laptops in lectures?

By Tom Weber

–Buying shoes on Zalando, or chatting with friends on Facebook during class might soon be history, as the UVA is testing a new set of house rules regarding the use of laptops during lectures. “It is hard to do your job the way you would like to do it, because electronic devices disturb the learning process”, said André Nusselder, a professor teaching the posthuman course at AUC and information studies at the UVA.

The fact that students tend to get lost behind their laptops in class, has become a topic of discussion among professors at the UVA. Nusselder is part of an informal committee, which has been established by one of the programme directors, with the aim to tackle the issue. This committee has recommended an optimised set of house rules for laptop use, which has, as a pilot, been applied to the UVA’s information studies BSC. According to Nusselder, the efforts are still in an experimental stage, with no clear implementations.

“We have discussed the issue with students at the UVA, who seem to be experiencing this problem of distraction”, said Nusselder, clarifying that students see their own behaviour and the behaviour of their peers as counterproductive in regard to laptop use. “We have to fight for attention”, he said, pointing out that the large student audiences at the UVA demand high presentational skills from the teacher’s side. “You have to be an excellent speaker and almost a performer to have the attention of students for two times 45 minutes. For most of us that’s a difficult job”, said Nusselder.

At AUC, where classes are intended to hold a maximum of 25 students, yet sometimes count as little as 6, teachers and students experience a similar issue. For Erinç Salor, a tutor and professor, teaching courses in the media and communication track, electronic devices tend to prove as diversions during class. “We would like to think we will not get distracted, but we do”, said Salor, although he thinks that in designated timeslots, for group work, or to facilitate research, laptops can be useful. Salor indicated that teachers have a certain obligation towards their students, “When I am speaking I would like to think, that I am saying things that are worth listening to, and if that’s not the case, then that is my problem and I have to fix it.”

The opinions among AUC students concerning the use of electronic devices during lectures varies. “I think they sometimes can be helpful for looking at the readings or checking up on a point to be used in class discussion.”, said Lieke Beunders, a third-year Humanities major. Robert Carr, a second-year Social Science major, finds that laptops help him to take and organise notes and he thinks “it’s very old-school when teachers do not let us use them, it is our choice if we want to learn.”

“I think that there should be a stricter rule regarding the use of laptops”, said Leon Lan, second-year Science major, addressing the concern that they are a potential diversion for others. “The use of laptops distracts not only those who are using the laptop, but also those who are sitting next to or behind them”, he said. According to Elizabeth Schippers, a first-year Humanities major, a teacher’s decision to prohibit the use of electronic devices should be respected. She thinks that students themselves should be responsible for paying attention during class. “If you’d rather browse Facebook, that’s your choice.”

Manuela Vooijs, a second-year Science major, places the responsibility on the teacher. “It really depends on what standards the lecturer sets, in my opinion”, said Vooijs. According to her experience, engaging lecturers tend to prevent students from getting distracted by their laptops, whereas a dry lecturing style leads to a shift in focus from the professor to the screen.

AUC’s senior tutor and professor Huan Hsu is, in contrast to Nusselder and Salor, more of a laptop advocate. For his journalism class, Hsu requires students to bring their laptop to every session. “I don’t see how you could ban laptops in a 21st century journalism class”, said Hsu. Considering that students tend to primarily work on electronic devices, utilising these is much faster when it comes to taking notes and looking up information during a discussion. “There are studies that say that handwriting helps with attention, but I think that’s kind of a trade-off”, he added.

Hsu pointed towards the larger pedagogical issue of burdening students with even more rules. He believes that professors can expect undergraduates to self-regulate the use of laptops in class, and to have the self-control to only use them when necessary. “I really think it comes down to setting expectations, making clear what the expectations are and giving students the opportunity to be mature”, said Hsu.

According to Hsu, it becomes counterproductive if a professor has to constantly police the use of electronic devices during a lecture. He thinks that lecturers should have the right to ban laptops, if they think that it will help them to deliver material. For him, the best way to prevent students from getting distracted by their electronic devices is participation. “I think we need to give students a reason to come to class and to be engaged”, said Hsu.

Expectations and obligations from the professors’ and the students’ side are, being discussed by the committee that tackles the issue at the UVA. Nusselder believes that, when students are unable to self-control how they use electronic devices in class, professors should draw a line. “It’s not like laptops should not be allowed always and in every case and if they are used constructively, that is great”, said Nusselder, emphasising that the goal is not to ban laptops, but to generate more productive learning.

Communication with students concerning this issue is crucial for Nusselder. “It’s something that might also be a little bit painful. Those devices have become part of our experience almost, and of how we do things and how we learn things”, he said, indicating that students tend to react very negatively to new rules, but are very understanding when their purpose is communicated clearly. Nusselder believes that the issue can be solved best, not by having different rules in each class, but by changing the way in which electronic devices are used for educational purposes on wider scale. “Our goal is to create a self-evident culture with clarity for students and teachers.”


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