It’s not the laptops, it’s the inattention.

I allow laptops in my classes, and really, would have a hard time justifying a different stance. Besides, with the cost of books these days, I find that especially in lit courses, students are taking advantage of free public domain ebooks for the classics, something they can do on a laptop if they don’t have an ebook reader such as Kindle or simply don’t want to juggle both a reading device and a laptop. It or my newer favorite, the iPad, is also the preferred way to take notes for many and a notable resource for looking up things on the fly. Not everyone loves the laptop in classes though, and I have to admit,that just like the student paper and the window, a laptop can be an excuse for inattention, one that can be harder to detect that the traditional ones.Most instructors recognize the signs of inattention, and know how to handle that in general. This is just a more specialized case. Yes, classroom management by walking around is the go-to solution, but with enrollment caps rising, sometimes the room is too packed to effectively walk around.

So, that is the problem. Here is how I address it in my syllabus:

Classroom Etiquette: Although it’s not likely that something inappropriate or offensive to others will be said in the context of a university classroom, online or in person, it can occasionally happen inadvertently. That is far more likely online where visual and oral cues are (usually) missing. Since this course has a significant online component, students need to be especially aware of online etiquette and avoid transgressions such as “flaming” or other acts that are usually defined as trolling. In other words, I expect all class members to behave with decorum. As a class, I’d like us to discuss the expectations you have of each other and of me in my role as facilitator. Intellectual debate is a healthy thing and is encouraged in the spirit of collaborative knowledge making; however, tone, especially online because of the lack of context cues is something we must keep in mind as teachers and students. Finally, during class time, your fellow class members and I deserve your attention. With that in mind, please refrain from texting, checking Facebook, or other not class-centered electronic activity during class.

I underlined the policy sentence, and I think the rest is important as well since so many of us use some form of discussion board. I like this statement because it points out that their inattention is not a you vs. them issue; it is a respect issue for the entire class. Those who go off task and ignore the good discussion from their peers are not showing them the respect they deserve.

So, what can you do? Set the ground rules day one. Let them know that you not only can check their screen and demand their attention during class, that you will.  Be lighthearted. Let them know that you don’t want to snoop, but that you and their fellow class members do have a right to their full attention.

Aside from that, I call on those who seem suspiciously intent on the laptop, especially if others next to them are too. The old “What do you think of that, Celeste?” method is good too. One I especially like is to have the student look something up for the class–you know–one of those let me look it up and get back to you moments. This way you can get an answer (or not) during class and at the same time give the transgressing student a chance to change his/her attitude by doing something positive. It is also an opportunity to give the whole class places to look for answers outside of Google. Have the student use Jstor or direct them to an academic’s blog. Oh! The opportunities when a classroom is not blocked off from the world by four walls!

I do walk around and look at their screens though, and get them used to the idea that what is on their screens is not private during class time. Sometimes I won’t say anything, but will close the laptop and keep walking. I do say something later, though, when I can talk to them privately. After all, the point of going to a university is to be engaged in learning. There is no engagement without purposeful attention.

Posted by

Author of the poetry collection The Tethered Ground and Professor of English at Missouri State University. Contact me for readings or for workshops on writing/publishing and on teaching writing online.

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