A few colleagues and I were discussing syllabus construction recently. With so many undergraduates owning laptops and smartphones, one of my colleagues wondered whether banning electronic devices in her class would be acceptable. She finds that the devices distract her students and cited some recent research to back her beliefs. She referred to a study conducted by Canadian researchers and published in a recent issue of Computers & Education. In the study, two separate classroom experiments were examined. In the first experiment, researchers examined whether multitasking on a laptop would hinder learning. In the second experiment, researchers investigated whether being in direct view of a multitasking peer would negatively influence learning. Basically, the study examined whether the presence of multitasking laptop users would have an adverse effect on learning for the multitasking laptop users and those seated nearby.
The results from the first experiment weren’t that surprising. On average, the multitasking students scored 11% below their non-multitasking peers on comprehension exams. Almost every educator knows that multitasking really means doing several things less well than focusing on a single activity. But our students try to do this all the time. They try to write papers on their laptops while listening to music and watching television and texting their friends. While they’re trying to do a lot of things, they’re doing none of it well. The study confirms that this happens in classroom learning environments and can have a huge impact on learning.
The results from the second experiment were a little alarming. Sitting next to a multitasking student had a significant negative impact on one’s learning. On average, students scored 17% lower on comprehension exams when they were seated next to multitasking students even though they were trying to pay attention to the lesson. The results of the study were clear: a student who is checking Facebook or watching YouTube videos during a lesson doesn’t just negatively impact their learning but also the learning of their classmates.
The knee jerk reaction to this study would be to ban laptops from classrooms. But, further examination of the research study can offer some other, more productive and educationally sound solutions. Here are a few alternatives I’d like to offer:
1. Create a more active learning environment in your classroom. The research study utilized lecture-style presentations as the main form of instruction. Students passively took notes as the instructor charged through PowerPoint slides. Incorporating more active learning strategies where students were engaged and involved in the learning process could reduce the amount of multitasking that occurs in a classroom. When students are more engaged in the learning process, they’ll spend less time on Facebook.
2. Teach the issue. As educators, we are charged with helping our students learn. While most of us see ourselves as teachers of specific content (physics, psychology, etc.), our real charge is to help our students develop as learners and as people. Sharing the research and discussing the issue of multitasking may help our students more than banning technology outright from our classrooms. Help your students make informed decisions about their actions, not only in your classroom but also beyond.
3. Explain professional expectations. In my class, I’m working with many students will transition to professional environments in a year or less. Many are completing field placements during my class. It’s imperative that these students understand the professional expectations of their jobs. Updating a Facebook status or posting a photo to Instagram during an interview or a meeting is considered unprofessional in most employment circles. It’s important that students begin developing these professional dispositions early. Having reasoned discussions about the expectations will carry more weight than banning technology will.
4. Involve technology for knowledge construction and problem solving. Rather than banning laptops or smartphones, use the technology (whenever appropriate) to have students build their understanding of concepts and solve complicated problems. Move away from simple Google searches and ask your students to answer in-depth, higher order questions that relate to their lives.
5. Identify technology-free times during your lessons. Create opportunities where you explicitly ask students to put away technology and be clear why those times may be necessary. If you’re having small group discussions on a topic, explain that you want students to be fully present in the moment and to engage fully in the process. Cite the research and explain that there will be other classroom times when technology-use will be more acceptable. Having these explicit conversations will help students understand the rationale in your decisions and may have an impact on their actions outside of your class.