The article “Miracle or Menace: Teaching and Learning with Laptop Computers in the Classroom” in Educause Quarterly in 2004 revealed the negative perceptions of instructors at Westpoint concerning student use of laptops during class:

Many instructors felt uncomfortable teaching students who were actively pounding keyboards to take notes. Additionally, many faculty members believed that students would engage in activities not related to the class. Giving up this control in the classroom was not acceptable to some faculty. One faculty member stated outright, “My students won’t be using those laptops in my classroom.” Initial faculty attitudes had an adverse impact on our attempts to get students using laptops in the classroom.

These perceptions formed the basis of the article’s title, which includes the word “menace.” The first things that come to my mind when the word “menace” is used are Dennis the Menace and the 1993 film “Menace II Society.” Laptop computers in the classroom certainly haven’t been in my schema for “menace!” I found the following statement in the journal article particularly interesting:

Even miraculously positive results on student learning could be discounted if the use of such technology proves a menace for teachers to integrate into their daily practices.

I wonder if school superintendents would share this opinion? If the inclusion and use of laptop computers in schools does lead universally to “miraculously positive results on student learning,” I am guessing they would find ways to change teacher perceptions of student laptops being a “menace!”

The examples included in the article of instructors “Bringing Learning to Life” through the use of the laptops all included dramatically different approaches to instructional pedagogy. Instructors and students were collaboratively exploring and sharing information and ideas, in a process that might not be “scriptable” or even precisely repeatable using an officially approved syllabus.

Other uses of the laptops described in the article were less exciting. Conducting research on the web, showing digital video clips, etc…. these are essentially sustaining technology uses, not disruptive or transformative ones. The ability for students to utilize and experience software-based simulations of concepts, however, is an activity that was not possible prior to the project, and would be an example of technology-enabled “infomation” rather than mere “accommodation” in the parlance of Alan November.

The uses of a “digital syllabus” on which students took notes, “beaming solutions” to the instructor during class, using interactive software and engaging in collaborative projects during classtime were all examples of innovative and progressive teaching strategies discussed in the article I would classify as non-traditional.

The included “lessons learned” from this study can be of practical use to K-12 as well as university instructors / professors. These were:

  • Batteries Only—No Cords.
  • Editable, Electronic Syllabus
  • Screens Down During Movies
  • “No Outside Work in Class” Policy
  • “Classroom Rules” to clarify instructor expectations

The pitfalls highlighted by the authors are probably going to be commonly experienced by others at all levels participating in one to one laptop immersion projects:

  • Surfing the Web
  • Instant Messaging
  • Legitimacy of Web Sites
  • A Computer Exercise for Everything [not]
  • Instructor Preparation [is vital]

The biggest criticism I see of this study is that the authors did not separate the change in instructional method from the use of the laptop. In other words, how do we know the statistically significant improvement in student test scores was uniquely attributable to the availability and use of the laptops, and not merely the changes in instructional methods used by the four “experimental group” instructors? This is an issue of correlational cause attribution, common to studies like this one. It would have been good to at least have the article authors mention this possibility, however, and they did not.

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