Distracted Learning

In addition to distracted driving, and walking, now there is increasing awareness of distracted learning.  This has long been a problem in academic circles but it’s finally getting some news coverage.

Some professors in Ottawa want the right to ban laptops in class:

The University of Ottawa is considering a proposal which would give its professors the power to ban laptops and other electronic devices in the classroom.

Professors say everything from texting to time on Facebook is allowing their students to do everything but learn.

“They are distracted and we are competing with that for their attention,” says University of Ottawa professor Marcel Turcotte who voted in favour of the policy.

“You see one student who is really not listening, would be watching the video and then it’s kind of contagious,” says Turcotte.

As a professor, I see my share of this as well.  Every classroom has wireless and it’s just too tempting to browse Facebook and other non-relevant sites while in class.  A student once told me that they are distracted by OTHER people’s laptops when that other student is watching Youtube or browsing Facebook:  secondhand distraction.

I happen to see more phone texting in my classes.  <begin RANT>My opinion is that there is nothing special about a laptop where it deserves special treatment over any other technology (it’s not a magical note-taking tool).  If we take a more critical analysis of what the students and administrator say in the article:

But many students say they learn better with a laptop and the vice president of the university’s student federation says it’s an important tool.

What does that mean?  “Learn better”?  How do they know?  And what does “important tool” mean?  Again, it’s just a word processor; not a magical note-taking tool.  It’s attitudes and implicit assumptions like this (more specifically, a blind, unquestioning trust that the simple PRESENCE of a high technology tool will inevitably lead to better outcomes; it HAS to, it’s HIGH TECH!) that’s a major problem.  It’s marketing speak by companies who want to sell and integrate very expensive technology into our cars, classrooms, phones, and offices and administrators just eat it up.  What problem is being solved? <end RANT>

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About Richard Pak

Associate Professor at Clemson University/Department of Psychology

3 Responses to Distracted Learning

  1. Jordan Petry April 4, 2012 at 12:16 pm #

    I stopped taking my laptop to class for this exact reason. People who argue that they need their computer to take notes simply don’t know how to take notes, I think. They try to copy down everything on the Professor’s slides or everything that he/she says verbatim, and a keyboard allows one to do that faster. Students just need to learn to take notes the old fashioned way…

  2. Melissa April 9, 2012 at 8:36 am #

    Laptops are one of the key source for distraction. Additioanlly, once the laptop is got in the class, the student cannot be refrained from using it nor restricted.

  3. annie April 27, 2012 at 1:22 pm #

    Like restaurants (used to) have smoking and non-smoking sections, classrooms need laptop and non-laptop sections, and profs can publish the respective grade averages. ;)

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