laptops, classrooms, and matters of electrate concern

Last week, Inside HigherEd reported on this study (by Susan Payne Carter, Kyle Greenberg, and Michael Walker), which shows, once again, that students who use laptops in classrooms do not perform as well as students without laptops. Steve Krause wrote about the study a few days ago, wondering what might happen in a laptop-mandated classroom as opposed to a laptop-banned one.

I had a similar response to this study and the growing number of such studies. This study, like many of its kind, finds that students who have laptops in their lecture classes do not perform as well on multiple-choice tests at the end of the semester. There are many possible reasons for this, as the study explains:

There are at least a few channels through which computer usage could affect students. First, students who are using their tablet or computer may be surfing the Internet, checking email, messaging with friends, or even completing homework for that class or another class. All of these activities could draw a student’s attention away from the class, resulting in a lower understanding of the material. Second, Mueller and Oppenheimer (2014) find that students required to use computers are not as effective at taking notes as students required to use pen and paper, which could also lower test scores. Third, professors might change their behavior – either teaching  differently to the whole class or interacting differently to students who are on their computer or tablet relative to how they would have otherwise. Regardless of the mechanism, our results indicate that students perform worse when personal computing technology is available.

My first response, actually, was to suggest that someone might conduct a different study wherein the students who brought laptops to class were also allowed to use them during the multiple-choice final.  It’s only a guess, but I would think that having access to the Internet (and presumably e-book version of course materials) could substantially improve their performance. But really that’s only a hypothesis, and probably one would see better results if some direct instruction in finding good information was included. Of course such a study would seem counterintuitive as the presumed objective of a course is for students to “internalize” knowledge, i.e., for them to know it without reliance on notes, books, computers, or whatever. As we know, there are historical but ultimately arbitrary reasons for defining “knowing” in this way.

I know I’ve written about this many times before, and, in my view, this comes down to two interrelated problems.

  1. None of us, students and faculty included, have really figured out how to live, learn, and work in the emerging digital media-cognitive ecology. So it is certainly true that we can struggle to accomplish various purposes with technologies pulling us in different directions.
  2. The courses in these studies, and many, many other courses, want to operate as if the conditions for thinking, learning, and knowing have not changed. The faculty teaching them imagine that these are inherent human qualities. Even among those of us who style ourselves as “critical thinkers” and can recognize that such values are historical, cultural, and ideological can still manage to view technologies as either expanding, limiting, or overdetermining some inherent human agency and capacity for thought.

The second problem suggests that as faculty we need to rethink our curriculum and pedagogy as it now operates in a different media-cognitive ecology than it did in the past. The first problem complicates that as it suggests our understanding of that ecology and how to operate within it remains fairly limited. As such, we must proceed experimentally.

Perhaps the greatest hurdle in all of this is the uncertainty regarding how we should make such judgments. We know that technological development is itself a value-laden and not simply rational process informed by a desire for profit and by any number of other cultural values. As such, we shouldn’t just accept whatever is handed to us. On the other hand, the same critique might be made of pre-digital technologies and the practices that have been built around them, and we shouldn’t just accept those either.

Then in practical terms, trying to address all these matters in the typical classroom is very hard. If your goal is to teach literature or economics (like in this study) or chemistry, then these technology hurdles are significant detours. You probably just want to give your lectures and grade some exams, or, more generously, you want to deal with the subject matter in which you have expertise. It’s not your job (I think it is fair to say) to rethink the foundations of pedagogical practice in your discipline. And when we do attempt this, often we end up with things like the “TEDification” of lectures, as this Chronicle article reports.

It’s easy to criticize TEDification (no one would use such a word to say nice things), and yet the notion that entertainment should play a role in pedagogy fits well into an electrate apparatus. This is, after all, the classical line about poetry, that it should “delight and instruct,” so such matters are hardly new. It is only that in electracy we develop new institutions around entertainment. When I write “matters of electrate concern” then, I bring together Ulmer and Latour. Matters of concern remind us to listen to the nonhumans, the “missing masses.” If the hybrids of the 17th and 18th centuries fostered the Modern era, then following Ulmer, the second industrial revolution, specifically the invention of mechanical, then electronic, and then digital media, are ushering in the electrate era.

It’s not the right question to ask “how do I get 200 students with laptops in a lecture hall to learn my course material?” Why are they in a lecture hall for 50 minutes, three days a week for 15 weeks or whatever the schedule is? Why do they need to learn the material in your course? I don’t mean to suggest that we should abandon everything we do. I assume we have good answers for that last question!

Rather than establishing values and answering questions before hand, I think we need to move forward experimentally. We cannot expect immediate good results. It will take time to develop new institutions. Students in digital media-cognitive ecologies have different capacities than those students who preceded them. Those capacities are not a delimited list; they will shift depending on the particular network of actors in which they operate. We will need to experiment to discover those capacities and create new learning environments that will have a recursive relationship with pedagogy and curriculum. As we might say, pedagogy shapes and is shaped by learning technologies… primarily because those nonhumans have a say. Furthermore, we will need to help students learn how to shape such ecologies for themselves to facilitate their own learning, work, and life.

I think that’s what electracy instruction might look like as an evolution of the literacy instruction that was once, in a past century, primarily the domain of English Studies.

5 thoughts on “laptops, classrooms, and matters of electrate concern

Add yours

  1. YES! Thank you! Now, let’s see if colleagues will pick up this idea to shift pedagogy to incorporate experimentation with technology.

    To that end, I chair the California OER Council — and to our surprise, students don’t know how to study using digital materials. The same could be said of using the powerful machines in front of them during class sessions. The Council discovered that there’s no real tutorial on studying from digital materials and made a video tutorial to help students and faculty adapt to this environment (available here: “Reading on Electronic Devices” ) .


  2. Picking up a little on Katherine’s comment and some conversations I had at #cwon with some folks: one thing that also occurred to me later as I was thinking about these sorts of “taking notes is better with paper” kind of studies is I don’t ever recall a lot of explanation about what any of these studies mean by “taking notes.” It’s not unusual for me to come across first year students (actually, even more advanced students) who really seem fuzzy on how to do this, who don’t follow any particular pattern/technique. So I I guess what I’m wondering is if someone did a study with relatively inexperienced students and they let them use whatever they wanted to use to take notes, but one group they taught a particular technique and they other they didn’t.


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