Thursday, 25 January 2018

Universities and Laptop Bans

I've talked before about how I reading Minding the Campus to get my "fix" of university related content. Well, through that I came across Inside Higher Ed, which I use for the same purposes. And to the tell the truth, I use it more these days... not because of the absence of an obvious political bent but because it updates more frequently. I'm pragmatic like that.

It appears Americans aren't pragmatic like that.

Woah. Big claim. And not one I am actually going to defend.

The thing with reading both websites and their attendant links (e.g. to Delagar, the James G. Martin Centre or The Tattooed Professor) is that they're not exactly what I was after when I first returned to Minding the Campus... a more student centred conversation. But as my years of reading both sites suggests, I'm not disinterested by what the websites actually are. Some of the stuff they introduce me to is very interesting (e.g. apparently there's a signalling versus human capital argument in economics). And sometimes it isn't so much.

Today I don't really care about the points being made by this dude. When I was watching Thirteenth, a very good documentary he appeared in, I did. But today, The Tattooed Professor merely serves as an incidental part of the narrative. There are great many opinions I have about lectures. One day I might even feel the urge to write some of them out. But TFP's reminded me that banning laptops is a subject that attracts a great amount of anxiety among the American lecturership.

That's not very pragmatic.

When people talk about laptop bans they mean within the lecture theatre or other classroom environment. As opposed to banning laptops more generally from campus. It's an enormous difference. So what's my take on laptop bans?

You might expect that I'd be in favour of laptop bans. After all, I am anti-BYOD and isn't that exactly the same thing? No. It's not. BYOD is an Exercise Book Ban. At least, in the sense it's usually proposed as a 1:1 substitution of the school book with the laptop/tablet, no matter how inappropriate. In a more flexible set-up, BYOD is a mandatory purchase scheme. Often it doesn't even let you buy a Samsung tablet instead of a iPad. At least the old school stationery list didn't say you had to go with Warwick or Office Max. BYOD is the rort everyone says uniforms are. #triggered Anyway, the point is, BYOD and laptop bans are actually pretty much the same thing: rigid control of the means of (note) production.

Don't get me wrong, some of the reasons I use to condemn BYOD are similar to those used to justify banning laptops... namely that the evidence out there says notes written on laptops tend to less retention than notes written by hand. There different ways of talking about this. You could say, "Yeah, well, that's basically the net effect of handwriting in the long run as well" (see: the signalling link). You could criticise the evidence. You could say that "hey, this is because we haven't gone far enough yet." I emphasise the could there because...well... that last one is a dumb argument... at least, with schools.

To be honest, it's a very bad sign that the argument is  one of the conclusions of the "bad guys" in Not Our Problem If only we hadn't chickened out and pushed through all the reforms. Well, there's a reason we chickened out. And that's that people were getting hurt. (Sadly, that novel is based on a true story.) If you can't incrementally improve education through reform (based on current evidence), you shouldn't change it. Why? Because you're literally playing with childrens' lives. And their children's lives and so on (education is inter-generational #onlyreadtheabstract). So it's a problem if the evidence suggests BYOD reform doesn't spark improvements. And it's a really, really big deal if the supposed changes of the system (as I showed in the Magpie) aren't changes at all.

The thing is, university isn't like school. It's social purpose differs and its experience is always going to be very difficult. The similarity is that both involve education in an institutional setting. There is a lot of room for variety there. One of the big differences with universities is that they're kind of into the radical choice. Sure, you don't have to come to your lectures (there's no roll) but the evidence says people who do perform a lot better. Sure, you can not hand in your assignment (no-one's going to harangue you over this), but that'll make passing much harder. But American universities seem to be much more paternalistic than the ones we have in NZ. This affects them in all sorts of ways, and one of them is that they entertain this laptop ban question.

That being said, it's not like I haven't encountered laptop bans myself. Okay. One. But still. For a few interesting weeks a course that spent half its time raving about mobiles as "Weapons of Mass Distraction" the lecturers went as far as to  actually ban laptops. Now, in that course, it was only a few pyschos who were actually using laptops because due to subject and course-level features they didn't make sense, but it was the idea of it. And, trust me, essentially everyone was using laptops to do the assignments... they were in R, after all. It was not an issue.

In other courses, laptops are much more common. Marketing 303 was insane. Every time the lecturer said something you just heard the sounds of probably thousands of fingers bashing away on their keyboards... almost always their Mac keyboards (the sheep). I can type faster than I write by hand, so when I was struggling in Anthro 201 I decided to try out a few lectures on my smaller (then recently) Ubuntu-fied laptop. I didn't like the experience. But I could try it out. So I did.

One of the reason BYOD proponents are BYOD proponents is that they say things like, "Weighs less than even one textbook". Well, firstly, we didn't really use textbooks at school and when we did we left them at home. That's the relationship with textbooks at uni, too. Back when I had readings in textbooks I did bring them with me... but only if I wanted to read on the train and very rarely did I bring more than one. What I would do is use library copies. Which brings me to my second point... by and large students who show up to classes (the ones I meet) prefer to read hard copies anyway. We print readings and take them to tutorials. Not because we're not used to reading online. Not even because we don't have digital copies. But also because people who like to write by hand tend to go to tutorials more often, in my anecdotal experience (#qualification). And readings tend not to be useful in lectures... which might be veering into The Tattooed Professor's points and I said I wouldn't go there.

Where lecturers need to have a laptop policy is if other students' use of laptops is distracting. The noise of the fingers is loud, yeah, but it drones and so it drones out. It's more funny than irritating, honestly. Students who watch, say, the Cricket World Cup on their laptops? Yeah, that's a problem. An entertaining problem, true, but a problem all the same. This is best remedied by the lecturer pointing out the issue to the class as a whole... and possibly directing people who want to use laptops to sit at the back. If it was a really widespread issue? Very likely it indicates something else is going wrong in the course, but in the interests of the fee paying students who are paying attention... this is the circumstances where I can see a ban's being justifiable. Not because of the risk to the risk-taker, but to the spillovers.

Of course, the thing to remember about university is that for the most part we're talking about "professional" students... they know what works for them personally, and we should let them (us!) weigh their decisions. At a school level, well, maybe by year eleven one is in a place to make a judgement about perhaps using a laptop instead/sometimes. My issue with BYOD is the universalism. My issue with laptop bans is the parternalism. They're similar things but not the same (am I talking about BYOD/Laptop bans or the reasons I am against them? Can't tell? that's the point).

post script

It's also possible to overplay the significance of laptops. If I had a PC I would probably not have had a very different university experience. There would have been a few cases with essays and assignments where I'd have lost working time, but in my first two years we're talking about very few days where I brought my laptop with me. And once I did get the lighter laptop? Well, I don't feel like I started bringing it any more often than before. For the most part, computer usage (and even internet access) on campus was well catered to by the university's computers. Things might be a bit different this year because I am doing something different, but that remains to be seen.

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