Saturday, March 12, 2011

Bring on the laptops

The majority of the 230 students in my first-year Global Environmental Challenges course bring laptops to class. When I look up into the rows, often the first thing to catch my fleeting eye is a glowing Apple logo or the brushed-aluminum back of a fancy Windows-machine. When my eye lifts to the students' faces, sometimes they are looking back at me, sometimes not. Nearer the back rows, I can't tell one way or another, they're too far away for me to see their eyes.

I don't mind if students bring laptops. The one rule I have is that they can't be used for gaming, watching movies or other purposes that might distract the students sitting around them. If a student wants to poke someone on Facebook while I'm babbling on about whether additional atmospheric carbon dioxide might have a fertilizing effect on C3 plants, that's fine with me. When I was an undergraduate in the 1980s I was probably not devoting 100% of my attention to the prof either, only my distractions would have been a magazine, textbook or study notes for another course, or a doodle of some sort. Professors with the most engaging teaching methods would gain more of my attention than would the others; I'd skip classes of the (thankfully few) truly atrocious ones.

As with every large organization, there's a wide range of talents and skills among the professors at any given university. There seems to be no pattern. Some are keen, prepared and love to teach, and it shows. Some profs who have been at it for decades drag out the same faded transparencies for the overhead projector year after year; others are as enthusiastic about their subjects as the were when they were grad students. Some young profs are energetic and innovative and super-sharp; others lack common sense to the extent you wonder how they find their way to the grocery store without a map.

There are some courses, and some topics within courses, that are really difficult to make exciting (advanced methods courses, or photosynthesis, for example). But a decent and well-prepared prof can guide students through dense and complex material efficiently and effectively. The students may still not like the course, or the prof by extension, but such is life. An uninterested or poorly prepared prof can make even the most interesting subjects painful and boring. I once took a 1st-year archaeology course as an elective, thinking about how exciting it would be to learn each week about digging up Australopithecus bones or Mayan pottery and such. Instead, the overwhelmed PhD student who had been assigned to teach the course read aloud from his heavily highlighted teacher's edition of the textbook. I skipped every class after the first one, memorized the text, got my 'A+' grade and learned nothing about archaeology.

I also remember very clearly being required to take first-year honours geology. I went into it expecting to be bored to tears as I learned to distinguish cherts from feldspars. I did have to spend time in the lab memorizing my rocks and minerals, but the lectures were a pleasant surprise. The prof was the head of the geology department and a good, enthusiastic teacher. I came out of lectures feeling like I was smarter person than when I had gone in. Which is the most basic purpose of university, is it not? Because of that professor, I ended up taking additional higher-level geology courses as options, and even briefly considered switching majors (thank goodness I didn't; "This Geological Life" sounds slow-paced). Such is the effect a good professor can have on junior undergraduate students still trying to figure out what it is they want to do.

Undergraduate students today pay a lot more toward their education today than I did 20+ years ago. I'm told that here in Ontario, tuition fees now represent roughly 1/2 of the overall cost of a bachelor degree, and that proportion will continue to rise. Although students have always been entitled to good-quality teaching and a positive classroom environment, it seems to me that that entitlement grows in importance as tuitions grow. This does not mean students are entitled to receive good grades (these must still be earned through work and demonstrated knowledge), but they do have the right to expect me and all their other instructors to come to class prepared and ready to go. Sure, there are days when I've got a cold, or have dashed from a meeting straight to the lecture hall, or have other reasons why a lecture doesn't go as well as it might have. But the students should never leave the lecture hall thinking their time and tuition fees have been wasted.

I have heard other professors grumble that laptops should be banned from the classroom,* and seen others include lengthy and descriptions in the course syllabus detailing what types of uses are permissible or not. This seems to me unnecessary. If my lecture material or presentation is so terrible that the students stop paying attention and focus exclusively on their laptop screens, that's my problem. If I'm explaining a complex but important problem at length and some easily-distracted student misses it because s/he is looking at photos from last night's party, that's their problem. So long as they're not distracting other students, they can do what they like. And having laptops in the class can be an asset for teaching. Sometimes a student will ask a question to which I don't know the answer, or there might be a statistic or figure I'd like to have at my fingertips, but don't. I ask a group of students to Google the information for me and report back later in the lecture. Many laptops make light work. And in the end, I would rather have a student sitting in my class sending e-mails and giving me 25% or even 10% of their attention, rather than having them skip. I'm hopeful (and vain) enough to think that even 1/10 of what I'm saying might be of some use to that student down the road, even if they're not aware of it today.

*Margaret Wente's column in the Globe and Mail today makes reference to one of her professor friends who thinks laptops should be banned, which was the stimulus for this post. Thanks, Margaret.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You are a great professor, although this research report for ENV1101 is one of the more challenging assignments I have done this year. I guess that is a good thing because I have also learned more than I have from any other assignment.