Category Archives: laptops

Technology for the sake of it

I’m going to have a little bitch here. Because today, in the middle of my class, when I was explaining some very interesting concepts, some students were very obviously looking at something amusing and not at all law related on their laptop screens. I thought about jumping up and down, screaming and throwing the laptops on the floor, and then stamping on them. I didn’t do it, but the fantasy was pleasing.

I put my anger down to sleep deprivation. The baby has a cold and she isn’t sleeping well. I also put my anger down to sadness that other people just don’t love trusts as much as I do. What am I to do about it? How can I convey to them what a beautiful thing the trust is? Perhaps I can create an Ode to the Resulting Trust (including my belief that it is peppermint flavoured).

Anyway, getting back to the topic, I was interested to read an article in The New York Times recently about the inefficacy of laptops in education. The article begins as follows:

The students at Liverpool High have used their school-issued laptops to exchange answers on tests, download pornography and hack into local businesses. When the school tightened its network security, a 10th grader not only found a way around it but also posted step-by-step instructions on the Web for others to follow (which they did).

Scores of the leased laptops break down each month, and every other morning, when the entire school has study hall, the network inevitably freezes because of the sheer number of students roaming the Internet instead of getting help from teachers.

So the Liverpool Central School District, just outside Syracuse, has decided to phase out laptops starting this fall, joining a handful of other schools around the country that adopted one-to-one computing programs and are now abandoning them as educationally empty — and worse.

Many of these districts had sought to prepare their students for a technology-driven world and close the so-called digital divide between students who had computers at home and those who did not.

“After seven years, there was literally no evidence it had any impact on student achievement — none,” said Mark Lawson, the school board president here in Liverpool, one of the first districts in New York State to experiment with putting technology directly into students’ hands. “The teachers were telling us when there’s a one-to-one relationship between the student and the laptop, the box gets in the way. It’s a distraction to the educational process.”

I think I’ve written before about my first day of teaching at university. I found a class full of laptops. I couldn’t see my students’ faces. All I could see was a sea of laptop screens, and the room was filled with the ticka ticka tap sound of keystrokes. It was a real culture shock. I like to look at peoples’ faces and to gauge whether they are understanding me. I also like to draw lots of diagrams on the board when I’m explaining complicated commercial law transactions (“X paid money to Y here, but then it went to Q over there and ultimately ended up with D here“) but it’s hard to draw a diagram on a laptop.

My experience has been that all too often, laptops hinder teaching in the classroom rather than help it. I crept up on some boys last year who were having inter-laptop warfare in the middle of class, “shooting” each other with arrows (virtually, not literally). I said loudly, “What’s this game, and how do you win?” They were so engrossed that they hadn’t seen my approach. They jumped about 10 feet in the air. I felt rather mean, but they were playing in my class.

Computers are great for research for essays in subjects like Law, History, English and other humanities. I don’t think I could do my PhD so easily if I had to keep going into university to photocopy articles. I can download at least half of them…but I always print them onto paper. Call me old-fashioned, but I can’t read things so well off a screen. I can’t see how laptops would add much in subjects such as Chemistry and Biology, where there is a large practical component, or Maths, when you can’t easily type equations. I did use computers when I studied Japanese, but I had to have a fair degree of fluency before I could do that.

But the recent trend in Australia is to say that laptops need to be taken into every class. Teachers are told to make up programs which involve laptops if they don’t already have a use for them. A friend of mine who teaches 5 and 6 year olds tells me that her class has been decked out with computers for the use of the students. Many students at the school have literacy problems. “It’s a total waste of money,” she sighed. “At the moment, many of them have difficulties with reading and writing, and some don’t know their alphabet at all, so what are they going to do with a computer? The best thing for them is one-on-one personal contact.” Still, she tries to include some computer activities, just so that if the Powers that Be ask her, she can say that she’s exposed her students to the computer.

I’m going to be controversial here and say that a laptop in the classroom equals an expensive and glorified pen. Typed notes are always legible and neat, and spelling mistakes are picked up. But to really understand a subject, I find that the best way to do that is to (a) write handwritten summaries to make sure I really know my notes and articles I’ve read and (b) try to do old exam papers. You don’t need a laptop for that.

Ah, bitch over. I feel better now.


Filed under academia, education, laptops, legal education, techonology, universities