Laptop Classrooms Present New Teaching Challenges

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I am writing about the article “Classrooms With Wi-Fi” by Mahesh P. Bhave, Ph.D. (November 2002). In the article, the author points out that more and more students will bring laptops to class, and that this, together with wireless access, creates new challenges for instructors. In particular, Bhave discuses in detail the topics of “Classroom Dynamics With Wireless Internet” and “Controlling Classroom Content and Agenda.” I would like to share the insights I have obtained as a result of teaching mathematics to students with laptops that are connected to the Internet.

When teaching in a classroom in which the students have laptops that are networked, it’s important to keep in mind that you actually have two classrooms in one. With the laptop covers down, you have an ordinary lecture room; whereas with the laptops up, you have a computer laboratory. Such a scenario allows the instructor to move seamlessly between these two environments and exploit the strengths of each where and when appropriate.

My approach has been to prepare a complete set of notes that are available to my students on the Web, which they are encouraged to download and study after class. Thus, there is no need for the use of the laptop as a substitute “for traditional notebook folders.” When I want students to pay sole attention to my lecturing, I insist that they lower their laptop covers. In this way, I have the traditional classroom environment without having the students distracted by their laptops.

After presenting some material on a topic, I usually prepare an in-class exercise for the students to perform with their laptops. These exercises are designed to reinforce the concepts just presented. Students are told to open their laptop covers and we switch to the computer environment. I have found this back-and-forth approach of switching between “laptops down” and “laptops up” to be highly effective, because it encourages students to be actively involved in the learning process.

Bhave also raises the issue of instructors controlling what students are using their laptops for during class. I have found that software like CrossTec Corp.’s “NetOp School” and SMART Technologies’ “SynchronEyes” allow instructors to effectively control what students are doing with their laptops. These types of programs also allow instructors to monitor and take control of a student’s machine, as well as project the screen of a student’s laptop so that everyone in class can see it. Use of such software discourages students from using their laptops for anything that is nonclass related.

In the article Bhave writes: “It is not clear when the effectiveness of a teacher breaks down ...” One factor related to this is the number of students that an instructor can effectively deal with in a laptop classroom. If the students are to use their laptops in the computer environment, then invariably some will have problems with their software and/or machines. The more students, the more possible problems that can arise. Thus, the instructor has to be able to assist those having trouble from time to time. My experience has led me to conclude that 20 to 30 students are manageable in a laptop classroom. Any more would lead to delays, which are not well tolerated by students who tend to become distracted very quickly.

There is no question that laptop classrooms present new challenges that require modifications in teaching style and approach. However, the effort expended to deal with these challenges is more than compensated by the opportunities that such classrooms present to utilize technology as a teaching and learning tool.

Lawrence E. Levine, Ph.D. (llevine@stevens-tech.edu)

Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, NJ

This article originally appeared in the 12/01/2002 issue of THE Journal.

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