College Guide


November 06, 2012 10:00 AM The Laptop Rats

By Daniel Luzer

In some circles people believe more technology will only lead higher education to become more awesome. Cheaper, faster, more inclusive. For some professors, however, technology is pretty annoying.

The laptop is a particular problem as it allows for both note taking (good) and web surfing and chat programs (bad). Some professors have even banned electronic devices in class.

One Canadian professor has a particularly innovative plan to deal with disruptive technology (in the original sense of the term): allow electronic devices, but force students to tattle on each other if they detect misuse. According to an article by Louise Brown in The Toronto Star:

When professor Henry Kim noticed a student this week paying more attention to his laptop than the class discussion, he asked another student to check out the suspect’s screen.
The business professor at York University’s Schulich School of Business quietly asked the tweeter to leave for the rest of the 90-minute class for breaking the pledge his students must take not to use laptops for anything but class work.
And it meant using another new pledge this frustrated teacher had students take this fall; to spy on a classmate’s screen, if asked, and report truthfully what they see.

Kim defends his policy by explaining that “there’s not an ounce of scientific evidence that students can actually multi-task and learn.”

Well sure, but why should policing your policy be every student’s responsibility? Who cares what tactics students use to get through your class? Either they do or do not retain the information you provide. Grade them accordingly.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer


  • Dennis Ashendorf on November 06, 2012 12:34 PM:

    Dear Mr. Luzer,

    On this topic, you err. Laissez-faire does not work in teaching, where it matters that students learn to the teacher. Whether its high stakes test scores or a med student not learning about foot diseases, knowledge matters.

    It's really not about grades to society, and many students don't care. This is vitally important to realize: any teacher who claims "I taught, but the students didn't listen," is considered a failed teacher in the business.

    I'm not sure Prof Kim's approach works, but laptops in the classroom seem to be multi-tasking machines. It's hard to believe that learning is retained in this situation.

    Please don't advocate "Going through the motions" education. "Going through the motions" appears to be the main jobs of many Americans. Do you think it's working? Prof. Kim doesn't. Don't tear him down.

  • Ebenezer Scrooge on November 06, 2012 3:07 PM:

    I share Daniel's libertarian streak, but then again, I've never taught anything but law school. If a 24-year-old wants to hang him or herself, far be it from me to take the rope away. And, of course, some of the don't really hang. I doubt I would feel the same way about high school students.

    I did have one rule, however. If any student wanted to watch distracting material on their laptop (movies, porn, video games, whatever), I requested that they sit in the back row of the class.