Be transparent about how technology should be used, and why it should be used.

It looks like, if you want your student’s laptop use in class to be productive, you need to model it and structure it. They’ll need to know how, and why to use their laptops in lectures.

The idea here is based on a paper from on the effect laptops have on classroom learning outcomes and perceived clarity of instruction. And the key idea, in terms of twitter, is unstructured laptop use  is distracting, and negatively effects learning. Students check email, chat, play games, and surf the net, report they understand lectures less, and score lower on grades. And they distract other students too. It’s important to note that this is unstructured laptop use ( where students are totally free to do what they want with them, and are given no direction) and that it’s in a lecture context, and not in the context of project work, or research.

Structured laptop use may be engaging and have a positive effect. The takeway lesson here, might be, if we want students to benefit from the use of technology in their classrooms, we are going to have to show them how they achieve that, and why they should do it.

Here’s the academic context.

More and more faculty members, teachers, and educators generally are finding their students are bringing their own devices into the classroom. Notes are being taken on tablets and laptops, people are tweeting classes, crosschecking ideas, facts and contexts online. And more and more educators are having to come up with a way of coping, integrating and thinking about the wall of screens their students flip up at the beginning of class.

The research is still being done, but, at present, it looks possible that unstructured laptop use might undermine attention, engagement, and learning outcome achievement. And it looks possible that structured laptop use might enhance engagement.

The study acknowledges that some papers have found positive effects of in class laptop use. Increased student engagement, motivation, increased ability to apply knowledge. Other papers (with objective criteria) have found no effects. This could be down to several casues. Papers have tended to avoid objective measuring criteria ( relying on self reported assessments – not always reliable indicators) , and few papers detail unstructured use of laptops – most are done in supported laptop implementation programs. In short, the positive effects are generally not objectively suppported, and occur in programs designed to support and spread laptop use.

Fried’s study (cited at the end of the post) argues that the multitasking aspect of laptop use (chat, tweeting, email notifications, surfing), and the distracting effect on other students of someone else using a laptop is, overall, a negative one for learning outcomes.

“Results showed that students who used laptops in class spend considerable time multitasking and that the laptop use posed a significant distraction to both users and fellow students. Most imprtantly, the level of laptop use was negatively related to several measures of student learning, including self-reported understanding of course material and overall course performance.”

Fried’s study was of 137 students at an American University, all taking the same course with the same instructor. Laptop use was unstructured. Student’s had laptops, and wifi access, and could all use or not use their laptops if, and how they wished.

Key findings.

Laptop users reported multitasking for 17 out of every 75 minutes in lectures (checking email, messaging and chat, surfing, game playing, and other activities).

Laptop use was found to have a relationship with several characteristics. “The more students used laptops in class, the lower their class performance” – laptop users scored lower on standarised tests. They also reported feeling the lectures were less clear, and that they paid less attention. Students who reported feeling clear, and paying attention, scored better on standardised tests. Laptop use by fellow students was reported by the class at large to be the single largest distractor in class.

Why this matters.

More and more research is pointing to the possibility that, if we want our students to engage well with technology in their classrooms, and in their learning, we may have to provide some support and structure for that use of technology. As educators, our use of technology in our classrooms has to be conscious, and transparent.

Our students need to know both how to use technology in their learning, and why they should use it. Unsupported laptop use looks like it might be damaging to learner engagement. And there’s evidence to indicate that supported laptop use might boost engagement, and transference.

If our students are going to use their devices in class, we need to provide support and structure for their implementation. And by intelligently using technology ourselves – by carefully considering how we engage our students, and by clear with them what constitutes good engagement – we can access the positive outcomes, and manage the negative ones.

How to achieve this

Be transparent with students. Tell them what they are doing with twitter, how they are going to do it, and why.

Carrie B. Fried, In-class laptop use and its effects on student learning, Computers & Education, Volume 50, Issue 3, April 2008, Pages 906-914, ISSN 0360-1315,