Wednesday, May 21, 2014

No laptop policy as an educational innovation

While many of educational innovations focus on incorporating variety of new media in learning environment for good reasons (e.g., flexible management of distance and time in one’s learning ; flexible learning , incorporation of supplemental learning tools for enhancement students’ learning; blended learning), no laptop policy, implemented throughout 2012-2013 under professor Shawnika Hull and Chris Wells’ instruction, seemed to have brought positive effect in learning and teaching for students and instructors, when it comes to a traditional, large-lecture setting with discussion sections, a learning environment which many courses at UW and other institutions are still in. 

Although situated in a different context of one-on-one writing session, the article written by Leah Misemer on her experience as a TA coordinator of the Online Writing Center at UW-Madison, illustrates some of the anxieties the author had during her appointments when working with students who work on a laptop. Working on a draft on a laptop together, the author says, creates a “power imbalance” between the student and TA; students are compelled to make immediate and micro-level changes to portions of their writing laid in front of their screens and passively type the TA’s comments on their laptops. While the major reason behind the implementation of no laptop policies seems to be high level of distraction (e.g., using laptops for other purposes than the lecture), the policy seemed to have a bigger effect as described by Misemer in her article, even in lecture-hall settings, discussion sections, and not to mention, one-on-one appointments with students. 

The ‘power imbalance’ seemed to be present during lectures; students taking notes on the laptops seemed compelled to type every word spoken or written by the professor while those with a note pad did not seem to be writing as much. This seemed to be more pronounced in undergraduate lectures where there are relatively more morsels of information conveyed and thought to be mechanically taken in compared to graduate seminars, which further contributes to the ‘power imbalance’ between the professor and students. Students seemed more compelled to feel they need to get all the pieces information down, rather than digesting, critically interpreting, or making sense of them as they take part in (mostly unidirectional, but) a good lecture on the topic at hand. Also, an article by Reeder (TA assistant director of the Writing Center of UW-Madison) describes the power of visualization; nothing fancier than her ‘inscrutable Venn diagrams, circled and re-circled symbols’ on the back of her blue sheet. The author highlights how valuable visual way of thinking and learning can be, all of which can be done better with a pen and a notepad. This also implies how students in lectures could be taking more active stance in making sense of the material being conveyed during a lecture. While those without laptops may be as passively listening or doing as many things unrelated to the course as those with laptops, taking part in J201 with and without the policy led me to give a second-thought on merits of allowing laptops for students. 

Laptops in discussion sections had more visible effect than in lectures obviously. Discussion leaders using laptops during a discussion were more frequently asked to rephrase their questions by their peers than those without, made less eye-contact, follow-up and re-questions, and acknowledgements and comments on their peers’ opinions. And my personal experience in one-on-one appointment with students with laptops were pretty much in line with Misemer’s experience.

No laptop policy, which first came to me as just another small class rule, loomed as something more than that, ‘specially in media-entrenched class environments. And in the course where new media is one of the biggest topics of course, no laptop policy made more sense as it would be a ‘new media experience’ for students of younger generation.

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