Blog Post

10 (Even More Basic) Things We Did With Laptops In Class Instead of Banning Them

In a quite beautiful response to the recent New York Times op ed about why laptops should be "banned" in every classroom, Mark Sample, who teaches "Introduction to Digital Studies," compiled a list of "Ten Things We Did With Laptops In Class Instead of Banning Them."    I urge you to go to his blog and read about these ten fascinating things (listed at the bottom of this blog).  Most of these are as technical as they are creative.

What Is a Classroom?  Pedagogy Before Technology--Always!

Below, you will find my top ten list for laptops in a classroom. However, before I make that list, I want to establish a learning context (as any good active learning advocate would, of course).

Anyone who has read my work or been part of the HASTAC network or has followed my blogs on HASTAC is already familiar with my sense of the importance of understanding the tools that we use and that use, misuse, and sometimes abuse us.  I discuss this at length in The New Education: How To Revolutionize the University To Prepare Students for a World in Flux--with a chapter "Against Technophobia" and another "Against Technophilia."  We co-founded the HASTAC network in 2002--before Facebook or even MySpace.  NSF has called us "the world's first and oldest academic social network." 

If all of that is old hat to you, then you also know that I tend to teach student-centered, often student-designed courses that are not about digital skills but that are deeply concerned with the ways we think through, with, and about technology--and the ways we use technology and the ways it uses us. 

I often call my courses "digital defensive driving" rather than "digital literacy" because I believe we are at a point in this Internet age where we need to take much greater control over the "means of production."  Whether it is a battle for what remains of "net neutrality" or a frank conversation about which of our devices is recording our most private behavior or a question about how our data is being sold by social media that we think of as "free," we live in an extremely complex technological world.  Knowing more is a necessity to survive in this world.

At the same time, technology is mandatory now in most of our lives--to apply for jobs, for example, or to fill out health insurance or taxes or even to withdraw money from an ATM machine.  So how do we use technology wisely and well.

An additional consideration:  I teach at City University of New York where, on some of our campuses, as many as 70% of our students live in families that make less than $25,000 a year--significantly below the poverty line.  Most do not have broadband.  So, in teaching about technology, I also teach issues of access, equity, digital divide and digital participation.

To do all of the above, I use some basic technologies in my classrooms some of the time.  I do not ban laptops.  I do not require laptops.  I am always--always--sensitive to what any technology includes and what it excludes and precludes.

When I give large public lectures, I always include an interactive exercise with the audience to demonstrate the importance of "inventory" methods that include what the American Psychological Association calls "Total Participation" and what Audre Lorde, bell hooks, or Paulo Freire would call active, engaged pedagogy.  These methods include everyone, create a platform and a structure where everyone has a voice and contributes. 

Do I use expensive technology (such as laptops) for this discussion?  Never.  

In teaching and modeling the importance of full, democratic participation, I want to model what that looks like as a counterbalance to the way we are "schooled" in most of our education to be passive, ashamed of our thoughts, silent, or--on the other end of the spectrum--dominating, someone who mirrors the values of the institution and the professor, and exclusionary.  Of course, we are "schooled" in every accommodating position in between as well but the structure of schooling itself is about continuums of inclusion and exclusion that I work to dramatize and deconstruct and counter in my classrooms and lectures.

To do this, I typically use two important technologies: machine-made pencils and machine-made paper.  I often pass out index cards, in class or in a lecture hall (I've done this with 6000+ IB teachers in the Philadelphia 76'ers auditorium) to show what it feels like to go from being a listener to being an active participant.  (For an extended discussion of these methods, see "An Active Learning Kit: Rational, Methods, Models, Research, and Bibliography.")

And given my students' resources, I never require students to come to class with any expensive technology.  I typically have a few loaner devices in the room, project the day's materials, and provide what is needed in order that, if we use digital technologies, they are available.  More typically, we use index cards, pencils, small post it notes, giant post it notes, and other materials. 

I often say that, unless my graduate classes look like a kindergarten, I have not been nearly rigorous and theoretical enough.

I teach a range of classes in the humanities (literature and film, often team-taught with experts in areas such as Black film or the McCarthy era and civil rights), in cognitive neuroscience ("This Is Your Brain on the Internet" is a favorite), on pedagogy, and on the history and future of higher education.

In these classes, I used radical pedagogical methods.  My students literally construct the syllabus from certain parameters that I and my co-profs have established prior to the class ("scaffolding" to use the jargon) and then lead our discussions.  You can see a class about to happen by going to the HASTAC Group for "Black Listed: African American Writers and the Cold War Politics of Integration, Surveillance, Censorship, and Publication."  

As you will see from the syllabus, we have structured some basic units/topics to choose from, with a basic text or two in each unit.  On the first day of class, the students in the course will self-organize (we'll be out of the room), choose a topic for their group work, shape it, add new texts and bibliography, and lead us in a conversation about that topic using a pedagogical method that they develop, deploy, test on their own students (most Graduate Center students teach their own courses at one of the twenty-four CUNY undergraduate campuses), garner response and feedback to (from their students), and then discuss with our graduate class along with the important content of the course.  Our "Black Listed" course  begins in February 2018 and our syllabus will be populated once the  students come to class. After each unit or topic, students will include a "recap" of our conversations and methods on this public Group so that anyone else can learn from what we are learning together. 

A collective, public "contribution to the public good" is one reason for this HASTAC network and one requirement of all of my courses--a give-back to the society that supports our public education, open access, free, and HASTAC never misuses your data or sells it.  Ever.  Anyone who is part of the HASTAC network can create a Group for their classes.  You become part of the network by signing up and agreeing to our respectful community model of exchange. No one in my classes needs to own a laptop to participate.  We have simple, basic computer labs where anyone can participate.

This fundamental "contribution to public knowledge" and continual knowledge sharing with our class is the baseline reason for laptops used (not necessarily owned) by students in my classrooms.

I neither require nor ban laptops.  I never use any technology (including index cards and pencils--or books or articles) without having students discuss the affordances of that particular technology.  When I do use laptops in my classrooms, I make sure that it is for a purpose and that everyone in the class participates in that purpose.

Ten additional ways that I use laptops in my classrooms:

1-Have the students running the class that day decide on whether or not they want their classmates to have their laptops or other devices opened or closed that day.

2-If it's decided to have the devices open, then design the class's work around the affordances of the laptops and fully knowing their infinite potential for distraction.  Take that as the opportunity and the challenge of the class.

3-One affordance to take advantage of:  have the whole class take notes on the day's presentation (i.e. I don't usually lecture, even to hundreds of students) in a collaborative online tool, with different functions assigned to different students: three or four might be taking the notes themselves; two might be assigned (self-designated) as editors or proofreaders; one might be assigned formatting or design or even comics-drawing functions; a few more might annotate; a few more might provide references.   Always assign more than one person to a task since some will be actively talking and participating while others are typing--it shouldn't work but it does, in ways that always astound and impress me.  Some of this happens during the class period and then ends up going on throughout the week, without it being required. 

4-In the next class, have students work in teams (two or four, depending on the class size) to review the notes from the week before and come up with two or three questions that would be ideal, challenging, and powerful on a midterm or final exam.  (NB:  They will learn more from crafting questions than from any answer they write on my own end-of-term test.)

5-Work in class together on revising or writing a Wikipedia entry on a figure given scant coverage or erroneous coverage.  (If you think this is easy, you've never tried to edit a Wikipedia assignment.)

6-Take some time to do Howard Rheingold's famous laptop exercise.  He begins classes by saying:  "Shut your laptops.  Shut off your cell phones.  Now shut your eyes."  The variation I like to do with this is to have students sit for 90 seconds with their eyes and all devices off and then open their eyes and write for 90 seconds (yes, they can do this on a laptop if it is easiest) recording everything they thought (yes, they can censor for public class consumption) as they sat their with their eyes shut; I then ask them to take 90 seconds to write everything they sensed with their eyes closed: what images, sounds, smells, textures, tastes, pleasant sensations, fears, creepy feelings, etc.   I then go around the room and have everyone read what they wrote to each of the questions.  What students discover is how, even in the relatively "uniform" situation of all being in a classroom together, there is tremendous variation in what we think about, what we feel, what we sense, and how we feel. 

Whether we're in a literature class, a class on the future of higher education, a pedagogy class, or a class on neuroscience and attention ("This Is Your Brain on the Internet"), having this inventory method to understand individual differences--we don't even experience the same space in the same way--is very useful.  They also realize, very quickly, how utterly distractable we all are even when we think there are no distractions: no laptop, no cell phone, our eyes wide shut.   Sometimes, in class, I've had them do the Rheingold method and then read them a passage from our assigned reading, asked them to think about it for 90 seconds and track their own thinking.  I then have them open their eyes and record what they thought, in what order, how long they could stay on the thought, what sent them off it, what distracted them, what noises or other events might have taken them away from the quote I read and so forth.

     NB:  90 seconds is an eternity so far as single-minded, focused attention is concerned, even without the laptop to distract you.

7-Sometimes I redo the "Rheingold exercise" and this time say:  Keep your laptops open.  Keep your phones open.  Keep your eyes open--and work with a partner to come up with everything exciting you can come up with, everything original and creative and surprising, about this quote from our assigned reading.  I then read them exactly the same quote they were meditating on before.  But now they are working in a collaborative online document, with a partner, and everyone in the room is working away on their own document.  I often again give 90 seconds . . . they usually plead for more time and then I give them 90 more.  No one is aimlessly surfing during this assignment; the room is abuzz; creative and critical thinking is happening at the speed of sound . . . When we go around and read what everyone came up with, it's usually pretty breathtaking and far exceeds any 1 hour lecture I would have come up with.

8-I've had students come into a class, and, instead of lecturing on the reading they have assigned us, challenge the class to work in pairs, again using a collaborative online tool so they can work together, and have each student come up with a "keyword" from their reading and then define it together with reference to what we just read.

9-I've recently tried an exercise that Prof Constance Penley uses in her film and video courses:. 

She has each student choose an article or book or blog or video or movie that supplements the assigned reading and then write a very brief review of it for the other students, the basic Who What Where Why When and How and then some really exciting, unforgettable feature that every student should know.  I've had students go around (inventory method again) and read (it's more efficient than telling) the unforgettable part.  Whatever else happens in the class, they leave with 20 or 30 unforgettable ideas.

10-At the end of the class, I like to have students reflect on how the class would have been different if I had lectured, on what would have been more "efficient" for their learning, and then decide whether, next class, they want their laptops open, closed, or a little of both, depending on how useful they are to our collaborative experience of learning together.  No banning.  Just an invitation to think, together, about the best ways we all learn and contribute to one another's learning.

All of these methods are adaptable to many other kinds of subject matter.  All are best on the memory experiments that go all the way back to the Ebbinghaus experiments of the 1880s.  He found that, after a high stakes exam, students rapidly forget content--in fact, if they study hard for the high stakes test but then are retested on exactly the same material, even given exactly the same test a short time later (and when they have no expectation that they will be tested again), they forget as much as 75% of the testable, previously tested material within a week.  Others have found other results but, generally, we don't remember very much in terms of specific content.  The more we use ideas, the more we remember--and the more we become confident in our ability to use them again in other contexts. 

So, it really depends on what you want out of education: if you want them to do well on the tests (the method for deciding the "efficacy" of laptops v. no laptops in the NY Times op ed), then ban the darn laptops, for all I care.

If you want students to actually learn ideas and skills and methods that will be useful and applicable long after the course is over, then come up with lots more engaged, creative ways of learning together than lecturing--some of which effectively use laptops and some of which effectively choose not involve laptops. 


Classroom Technologies in Many Fields

These are some of the things I find useful to do with laptops or other devices.   I've seen laptops used beautifully and banally in every imaginable setting as I've interviewed and profiled profs in my work.  I know math teachers, engineers, sociologists, psychologists, poets and fiction writers, artists, cell biologists, historians, geographers, philosophers, Classicists and, well, you name it--pretty much everyone--make decisions about what they will or won't use in a classroom, how they will use it, why, and how. 

The main thing is putting learning before technology: does it help or hurt?  Does everyone have access? Who is included, who is excluded? What is the purpose?  Seriously. What is the purpose?

In The New Education, I profile dozens of profs who have transformed their classrooms into engaged spaces of active learning.  Sometimes they use laptops, sometimes they don't even enter a classroom and don't use anything that we would consider "technology" at all. 

The point is not the device, but the learning.  Period. 


Mark Sample's Top Ten List: (Check out his blog to find out where, why, and how he did this in "Introduction to Digital Studies")

1-Explore the dark web
2-Mod a videogame
3-Witness the Network Effect
4-Make counter-animated GIFs
5-Research alternative timelines of gamergate
6-Decide whom to kill with self-driving cars
7-Write one billion poems
8-Read videogame code
9-Build speculative designs with Arduinos
10-Visualize something that will outlast the heat death of the sun



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