Laptops in Lectures

This post has been brought on by this post on Slashdot (or more directly, this article). Basically, a professor at the University of Memphis, USA, has banned laptops from her classroom. As most people who’ve been in a lecture that I’m also attending will know, I use a laptop to take notes down. I’ve decided that I should really explain why I do this, and while I’m at it I’ll describe how I view lectures in general too.

Why do I use a laptop? Well, for starters my handwriting is pretty bad. It’s probably gotten worse now as I don’t write much any more, but even at the start I found reading typed notes much easier. Another reason, which has developed over time, is that I type an awful lot faster than I can write – so I can get down much more of the detail given in the lectures, which is useful when reading through the material again at some future point. And finally, I can type without thinking much about the typing – so I listen to the lecture, and understand more of the material given in it straight away.

What’s the downsides to using a laptop? Well, at the start, I had problems with equations – but I quickly found Mathtype, which means that I can quickly type equations, rather than having to use the mouse to do them. So I can now type equations in pretty easily and quickly, although slower than I can type prose as it requires more key strokes per character (e.g. for greek letters, I hold down the Apple key (I use an Apple Mac computer), and press the ‘g’ key. I then release the Apple key, and press the key for the greek letter – e.g. ‘d’ for delta, ‘g’ for gamma, etc.

Another big problem, and this is one I have yet to resolve adequately, is diagrams. I’ve tried multiple approaches to this over the years – using a mouse (or rather, touchpad) to draw them in takes too long, using a graphics tablet can be confusing (you’re drawing in one place, and it’s appearing in another – though you get used to this), messy (wires everywhere) and slow (mainly due to the software, but also the delays in picking up and putting down the stylus, especially when typing in labels for the diagrams). So at the moment I just get the pen and paper out, doodle the diagrams down, give them an ID, insert the ID into the document at the appropriate place, and draw them in later.

If you’ve read the article I linked to above, you’ll know that the professor basically said that computers take up all of the student’s attention, and also creates a ‘picket fence’ between the student and the teacher. If you’ve read my comments above, you’ll realise that I don’t think this is a problem. What I do think can be problems with using a laptop in class is if the student isn’t using it to take notes – playing games, surfing the internet or chatting via IM has no place in a lecture – or if they’re using it badly, e.g. they can’t type fast. Also, if it distracts the teacher, or other students, then it’s not good. (Incidentally, if you’re in a lecture with me and I’m distracting or annoying you with typing, let me know – I’ll probably ask you why it’s disturbing you, and if you’ve got a valid reason I’ll put the laptop away and use pen and paper. I’ll then chat to you after the lecture about how I can keep the laptop from disturbing you in the future.)

Now, on to my views of lectures in general. I firmly believe that the purpose of a lecture is to convey understanding of the subject material from the teacher to the student. It is not a group note-taking session; that only distracts the student from the subject. Note that this is actually contrary to what the physics department of the University of Manchester (where I am at the moment) officially states.

My ideal lecture course would be either lecture notes provided beforehand (either on paper, or via the web – preferably both; also, either verbose lecture notes or presentation slides), which can be read by the student before the lecture starts. Then, the lecture goes through the material in the notes, with the emphasis being on explaining the material and making sure the students understand it. Regular “Put your hand up if you understand what’s going on” prompts from the teacher should make sure that everyone’s paying attention, and also prevents the “I don’t want to be the only person to put my hand up” that often happens if you ask who doesn’t understand the material. Also, at the end of the lecture do a quick sum up of the lecture, and say what will be taught in the next one – and make sure the students are paying attention, not packing up and trying to leave. In fact, it’s probably a good idea to start off the lecture in a similar way.

2 thoughts on “Laptops in Lectures”

  1. Alright there. I do physics in the 3rd year at Gunchester.

    Another physicist has just hooked me up with your website. Good work. You clearly are a super-efficient being! Thanks for taking the time to publish your stuff. It is certainly a big help for less organised people like myself.

    Have u had the pleasure of seeing the work of Mr Porlie Hues?:

    Also a bit of a legend in physics circles!!

    Just read this thread. I wondered, given your ideal lecture, just how frustrated must you be with the reality of lectures? i.e. usually an uninspiring individual reeling of reams of shit to a bunch of highly uncaptivated students with usually no opportunity for 2-way interaction.

    The farce that is higher education makes me all sorts of angry. I wonder if you feel the same?

    Again, good work on the site. And lovin the photography. Soldner-Rembold keeping it more than real!

    Nice YE calendar too – I did YE (a good few years ago now) and we won Europe!!!! (Not that I like to boast or anythin!?!?)



  2. here in london the two methods of an ideal lecture have already been implemented for a few years now. i can see about 12 weeks worth of lecture notes at the end of the lecture and i think they give you material to prepare with before the lecture too. when it comes down to exams and revising they also hand us some recorded podcasts of lectures (maybe from different universities if they didn’t record it themselves).

    i definitely agree with your notion on why the laptop should be used. if anyone’s annoyed with the distractions then a quieter laptop should be used (or the student being distracted should learn to focus more on the lecture than a gadget in someone else’s hand.

    nice blog


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