Originally, this web page described my laptop policy. During the 2009-10 academic year I realized that laptop use was not the central issue. My teaching-learning beliefs and goals, and my desire to create a certain environment for my classrooms, oppose multitasking in the classroom in all forms, and laptops are just a part of that.
I've rewritten the page to share frankly my thoughts, expectations of students, and conclusions that I might make about students based these beliefs and goals.
I recommend that you read and remember the below paragraph. The rest of this page goes into details.
The gist of this page, short and sweet:
a) Laptops are not permitted in my classes unless I state otherwise. Laptops are permitted in discussion sections SOLELY for the purpose of having at hand the reading assignment of the day, when it is in digital form. (You do NOT need to print out digital files for my classes!)
b) Multitasking, in my considered opinion, entirely subverts the type of learning I want you to have. Further, it degrades the classroom environment. I have also found that it wastes my time. Finally, it is rude to me and others. It is never welcome in my classroom and it is expected that work done for class will not be part of multitasking work sessions. I understand the pressure on students to meet a large variety of deadlines but I nevertheless feel very strongly about this. I find that in most cases I think negatively of students who multitask in my classes. I reduce the grade of students where class participation is a grading component, and, even when it is not, I do think that here and there this view that I have might slip into a student's grade. It think it is only fair that you know this. Please talk with me if you have any concerns or complaints. There is room for dialogue on this, definitely.
OK, so here is my reasoning based on my view of the brain and teaching experience:
In my opinion based on my research and observations over the years, we are many "people" (psychic structures) inside. Our body is a multiplicity of systems running concurrently (in or out of rhythm). Some of these systems are mental processes, some conscious to us, others not. In other words, I do not view the psyche as a single, coordinated whole but more like a confederation that works well together more or less, even if some portions of the brain are set in competition with others.
That being said, if we narrow the topic to conscious, complex cognitive activity—that is, not walking and talking at the same time, but, say, listening to a lecture and doing homework at the same time—for nearly everyone multitasking actually means consciously switching back and forth between tasks. It seems there might be—probably is—a small percentage of the population (3% or so) where this is not the case; they really can do two things "at once". I have no doubt that most of the multitaskers in my class would claim to be one of these "super multitaskers." But just on the statistics alone, I would not put any student in that category and, frankly, no student has yet shown me that ability. Yes, they can finish two things at once, but they cannot finish the part (the assignment or class presence or whatever it is) that comes my way with the quality I expect.
Habitual heavy multitasking seems to impact negatively productivity, even when not multitasking. (article) So as a concerned teacher, I do not look favorably on it; on the other hand, I recognize that students are adults. You are free to build your brain and fry your brain in any way you please.
Here are my problems with multitasking; I can't really rank them.
— Probably more than anything else, I became involved in the study of Japanese culture and literature to get me outside my own prejudices by learning about a different way to see things. And probably this is the A to Z of teaching for me — not the delivery of information but an attempt to create the space needed for the student to sharpen his or her skills at listening to or analyzing a situation puzzling and alien to them in a way that allows for encountering a new and different way of thinking. Of course I want my student to know specific things about Japan, but really all my teaching has to do with this more slippery process of subverting prejudices and opening the mind to very different ways of thinking. I grew up in a conservative environment (Bible-belt, mining & agricultural town in Oklahoma of about 8,000) with a limited number of ways of seeing things. While I wanted to rise above these limited set of values, and worked hard at doing so, I had no idea how meager my successes had been until I moved to California on a whim, jumped into graduate school at Stanford, and tested my mind against others from all over the country, and, frankly, learned of my small-town ways in a variety of situations that were painful to me. Real freedom of thought that leads to the understanding of others is basically my personal Holy Grail but also my teaching goal because it is my way of trying to be part of the solution to the frighteningly dangerous history that humans are writing for themselves. This really is what gets me up in the morning.
— When a student multitasks in my class, it is my opinion that they are just monitoring my lecture for information they should pay attention to. Skimming it for the main points. Filtering by using preset ideas of what they are looking for. They aren't lingering with the issue, bringing a layer of curious and critical questioning that sets up the rare but real brief moments when there is an opportunity to notice a legitimately and radically different something that can really reboot one's personal view of a particular thing. Students skimming in class just aren't understanding or are uninterested in or are too tired to engage the type of teaching that I'm offering. It is, indeed, their choice, but it is also my choice to note that they are missing the point. Further, I assume that this is probably the way they read and complete assignments away from class as well. Creative learning — listening and otherwise appraising a situation (or book, whatever) so as to step around one's pre-fixed views — requires energetic focus that I think it just not there when one multitasks. Further, I think the world in general is, probably, failing to apply itself to its problems by getting lost in a multitask-y To Do list that is longer than the time we have left to solve things. So I have strong feelings about this both in terms of my individual teaching goals and my desire to help educate students who can save the ship, so to speak.
— In addition to this belief of mine that multitasking directly subverts, murders really, my core teaching goals, I have also concluded, over time, that once a certain number of students have more or less "checked out" of my class and are just there in body but doing other things, it degrades some sort of keenness of atmosphere that I try to create. In a class of 70, it seems to take maybe 3-9 or so such students to do this, depending on where they sit and how often they actually come to class. In a smaller class it can take only 1 or 2, again, depending on the group makeup. I lecture in a "loop" — that is, I think about you as a group before I teach, I design the lecture specifically for you, I watch while I'm lecturing to see if I have made it meaningful to you, and the multitaskers, perhaps, affect my enthusiasm for this, or my ability to read the group, or something. They also affect the people around them, often. Each group is different and indeed each day is different, but generally speaking, I have found multitaskers to sometimes be death to my teaching style, and I have a right to resist that.
— I also think multitasking is rude. There is a lot of rudeness in the world these days so it hardly stands out any more when someone texts during a dinner, for example. But I really believe in kindness and I think this is unkind. Again, I realize there are lots of types of people in the world and I'm not interested in requiring my view for others, but I still feel that way. Usually, I spend quite a bit of time thinking about my class (the group) and coming up with things that I think will be interesting to them. It is my way of showing respect for you. I don't teach cynically or in neutral. I really do respect the time you make in your day for our session together. But the flip side of that is that in a relationship running successfully on mutual respect, students will notice this effort and answer back with inquisitive attention as best they can anyway on any given day. We all have our ups and downs. When you don't seem "there" on a regular basis, or are turning our time into a homework (or gaming!) hour for you, I conclude that you either haven't noticed or don't care about the effort made on my side. This is pretty common so it isn't that big a deal to me, but neither does it especially move you up in the ranks of students I'm concluding are doing their best in the class.
— Finally, it is nearly always the multitaskers who email me with questions that I answered in class, or require special attention and time in terms of handling assignments because they missed the requirements, and so on. I value my time and try to protect it against things that waste it. Student multitasking is, sometimes, definitely one of those things.
Multitasking, when it isn't just the result of lack of interest in the thing at hand, is usually the symptom of a student over-stretched in terms of deadlines. This is a particularly critical issue in my profession: we need to be productive, but we need to be accurate, reliable, credible, deep in our thought, and so on. It is a messy business; nothing is ever as good as it could be, and except for a remarkable some few, we are not as swift in completing our projects as we should be. So, I understand the double-bind of it: you're rewarded for speed, not accuracy, but you are punished for inaccuracy in a system that pretends not to know (when it is grading you) that it is asking you to be speedy. This is a position that causes me quite a bit of discomfort, but in the long run I am still on this side of things: in the case of scholarly analysis and cross-cultural studies and reading with depth, one must go a bit carefully to see past one's prejudices, to attain a fresh and credible perspective, to generate knowledge or pass on information that is reliable. If not in scholarship where in the world is there a place for this? It seems to me that someone, somewhere, needs to be careful and accurate. A lot of my design in classes is to encourage, almost require, this slowness. It is my nature and I can allow the fast-forward teachers to accomplish their goals in their ways. We need both types for sure.
OK, so I love laptops. I love the possibilities they provide, they way they capture information and my own random thoughts. Very cool things. Can't live without mine. It is with me nearly as often as my wallet & keys. But they are catnip for the multitaskers. No doubt about that. Every time I have tried a laptop policy with a promise from students that they would use it only in my class, I have canceled it in the first 2-3 weeks because of a student or students breaking their promise. Then it is awkward and awful to take away what was granted. I really hate doing that. So, for a while anyway, I've decided there is no point in giving it a try. I do not allow laptops in most cases. Some of my smaller classes are different.
Balancing act ... http://www.kongregate.com/games/IcyLime/multitask
Stress out ... http://www.davecrenshaw.com/free-multitasking-exercise.php?vistage
Crash a car ... http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2009/07/19/technology/20090719-driving-game.html
Find your inner multitasker ... http://www.quizmoz.com/quizzes/Personality-Tests/a/Are-you-fit-for-Multi-tasking.asp
Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences: Cognitive Control in Media Multitaskers
Abstract: Chronic media multitasking is quickly becoming ubiquitous, although processing multiple incoming streams of information is considered a challenge for human cognition. A series of experiments addressed whether there are systematic differences in information processing styles between chronically heavy and light media multitaskers. A trait media multitasking index was developed to identify groups of heavy and light media multitaskers. These two groups were then compared along established cognitive control dimensions. Results showed that heavy media multitaskers are more susceptible to interference from irrelevant environmental stimuli and from irrelevant representations in memory. This led to the surprising result that heavy media multitaskers performed worse on a test of task-switching ability, likely due to reduced ability to filter out interference from the irrelevant task set. These results demonstrate that media multitasking, a rapidly growing societal trend, is associated with a distinct approach to fundamental information processing.
elearnspace: Why Studies About Multitasking Are Missing The Point
Wired (reporting on 2009 Stanford study): Multitasking Muddles Brains, Even When the Computer Is Off
ars technica (2007): Study says: leave the multitasking to your computer
American Psychological Association Online (2001): IS MULTITASKING MORE EFFICIENT? SHIFTING MENTAL GEARS COSTS TIME, ESPECIALLY WHEN SHIFTING TO LESS FAMILIAR TASKS