Laptops in the classroom: Mend it, don't end it

Teachers: Step down as the sage on the stage and learn to be the guide on the side.

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As they cross the academic finish line this month, college students might be groaning more than usual. That's because many of them have prepared for their exams with handwritten notes – the result of enduring a year of classes without their laptops.

The reason? More and more professors are banning them from the classroom. Laptops, they say, turn students into stenographers instead of critical thinkers, or, more often, distract them with online shopping or e-mail. These are the same laptops, mind you, that many schools required students to buy in the first place, and they connect wirelessly to a network that universities have spent millions to install. Technology fees and tuition hikes are hard to swallow for students taking notes with a pencil.

After a decade of infusing technology into university facilities with gusto, the bandwagon is crashing into the classroom door. Provosts and presidents can rewire facilities and require laptop purchases, but these innovations are for naught if professors use the same old lecture notes. Computers can transform the way students learn only if instructors change the way they teach.

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As a teacher, I can confirm that most of us love to be the center of attention, and laptops threaten our fiefdoms. For years, we have pointed the desks toward us and shut the window blinds to maintain our monopolies. When we punish the class clown, it's not for being funny; it's for being funnier than we are. Admitting laptops into the classroom means facing the reality that in the competition for attention, our best lectures can't even beat solitaire.

To productively use laptops in the classroom, teachers need to be willing to surrender their supremacy. Students no longer need us for the facts because facts are instantly available on the Internet. Instead, they need us to help them figure out what to do with all that data. It's ironic that law school professors are leading the laptop backlash, since their discipline saw this trend coming decades ago when they stopped trying to teach the law and focused instead on teaching legal reasoning.

Teachers must step down from being the sage on the stage and learn to be the guide on the side. That change hurts for those of us who love the limelight, but it hurts less than losing out to Minesweeper. So what does a classroom look like when laptops have been successfully integrated?

Students are working individually or in small teams to solve engaging problems or answer compelling questions. They are synthesizing their own experience, ideas from the professor, and sources that they can find on the Web. They are talking with classmates, but they are also collaborating with people outside the classroom walls by e-mailing experts, posting to blogs, or editing pages on wikis (websites that allow users to add, remove, or edit content). The teacher has come down from the lectern and is moving throughout the room, watching what students are doing, asking questions, posing challenges, and brushing shoulders with the student who just checked the scores on ESPN.com.

Periodically the action is stopped. The teacher instructs the class to close their laptops, except perhaps one designated scribe. They talk. They share their insights, their solutions, and their obstacles. The Socratic exchange is fueled by the insights developed through electronic inquiry. The powerful face-to-face questioning isn't competing with the laptops; instead, it depends on it. When the dialogue ends, the teacher encourages students to reopen their notebook computers and summarize the important points of the conversation. Sometimes the instructor is delivering content, but more often the teacher is helping students learn how to learn.

Instructional changes in today's classrooms need to be as radical as the technological innovations that spark them, and university administrators must recognize that upgrading the network won't deliver results without upgrading the instruction. Schools can't expect overburdened teachers to leap into the 21st century in their spare minutes, and faculty will need grants, time, and resources to advance their teaching.

The best method for infusing technology into the curriculum is to support a few innovative teachers in developing new courses that use computers to enhance the academic culture of the school. Further financial support can help other teachers borrow best practices from the pioneers.

If schools are unwilling to provide the same support to teachers as they do to network technicians, then perhaps it's best for institutions to stick with trusted 19th-century resources. Older teaching methods are adapted to older technologies. If schools stick with the traditional pedagogy, then it's probably best to check the laptops at the door.

In the long run, though, the strongest educational institutions won't be the ones that leave laptops out; they will be those that discover the most powerful ways to bring them in.

Justin Reich is codirector of the Center for Teaching History with Technology ( www.thwt.org ) and coauthor of the forthcoming "Teacher's Guide to Teaching History and English with Technology."

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