A Discussion About Computers in the Classroom

A few weeks ago, Dan Rockmore published an article in the New Yorker titled The Case for Banning Laptops in the Classroom. A computer science professor at Dartmouth College, Rockmore argues that students become disengaged from the class the minute they get their hands on their computers to navigate the web and other sorts of things. Many will argue that the use of computers can certainly be an opportunity for teachers to infuse collaboration among students and for teachers to create an enhanced way of communicating and providing feedback to students during class time. But how do we deal with this reality? In times when computers are becoming a common gadget in a student’s college journey, below are a few arguments to think about when it comes to using and embracing the use of computers in the classroom. 

But is it the use of computers only that disengages students from what it is being taught? It is also important to discuss the ways in which teachers can engage students.

Research suggests, Dartmouth indicates, that students who take notes on a computer are outperformed by those who take notes by hand; in a study cited in his article, students who had taken notes in a computer were less able to recall factual information compared to their counterparts who took notes by hand. This appears to be related to the way in which people process information. Similarly to the use of laptops in the classroom, there also exists laboratories where teachers coexist with a similar, and challenging, room set up. Such challenge, most of the time, tends to minimize human interaction to simply turning to the right or left to speak to a classmate. Rockmore indicates that the attention we bring to this kind of environment can certainly limit the way in which information is presented.

Even though the computer can present a distraction while in class, it can certainly aid the interaction and learning if content is presented effectively. In my classes, I utilize different tools that can enable students to explore content and interact with one another in ways that can foster a true learning experience.

In our regular classroom at LaGuardia where we instruct students how to build their ePortfolios, the setup of the room, a regular computer lab, limits the way we infuse interaction among students. While it is important to highlight that we don’t engage students in a book review discussion or teach them statistical formulas, because we don't teach a regular college course, we do engage students in working with one another and give each other feedback on their ePortfolios; at least that’s a goal we have.

As if it were a response to Rockmore’s arguments, Rebecca Schuman writes in her article In Defense of Laptops in the Classroom for the Slate magazine that police practices performed by teachers in an attempt to impede students from getting on the internet while in class infantilizes the whole classroom environment. But is it the use of computers only that disengages students from what it is being taught? It is also important to discuss the ways in which teachers can engage students. As Schuman points out, if teachers want students to pay attention they should gather in smaller seminars where their presence matters and gets acknowledged by the rest. With arguments in favor and against computers, the main point must be focused on the pedagogy used to engage students in the discussion. Even though the computer can present a distraction while in class, it can certainly aid the interaction and learning if content is presented effectively. In my classes, I utilize different tools that can enable students to explore content and interact with one another in ways that can foster a true learning experience.

A view of the computer lab where students build their ePortfolios at LaGuardia.

How we can engage students in a classroom set up

I use ThingLink, for instance, a service that allows users to annotate images letting users explore more content that what it is viewed. I use it to create images with annotations that explain important points I want students to get. This way, students are not simply looking at a screen but they are also able to click and discover new content allowing them to explore.

Another tool I utilize is Google Documents. I create word documents and share them with students which they can edit. Once in groups, they can edit the same document and they can collaborate on a group assignment or discussion. In a recent training that I conducted for new mentors, for example, we engaged in a small group discussion about a reading and they then typed their ideas and responses in a document, every member accessed the same document, thus allowing them to collaborate and exchange ideas.

Then, thinking and emphasizing the social pedagogy in the classroom is crucial to engaging students. The interaction with one another and with information presented to them in meaningful ways is important to capture their attention, but more importantly for them to learn the material. If you want to read more about the use of technology in the classroom, you can also read a post I wrote about technology and traditional learning.

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ABOUT PABLO

I am an ePortfolio instructor working in New York City. I am also a student in the MA program in educational psychology at Hunter College. In my current position, I instruct students how to develop and build their ePortfolio to showcase their academic skills. I also collaborate in professional development seminars with faculty members from various departments on building the curriculum to teach the first year seminar experience. Read more about me.