Pinchin, K. (2009) ‘Can I have your half-attention, please?’ On Campus Macleans.ca, Feb 06
An article about students bringing lap-tops to lectures, with research indicating that students who use laptops in class do less well than students without laptops.
This article raises a number of questions. I worked in a college where in one program all students had to bring laptops to class. At least in these classes, there were some activities to do related to the lecture that required the students to use the laptops during class time. However, in most classes this took less than 25 per cent of the lesson time. Most of the other time, students were using their laptops for other, mainly non-academic activities, especially online poker.The article discusses whether students should be banned from bringing laptops to class, but this misses the point.
If most students have laptops, why are they still having physically to come to a lecture hall? Why can’t they get a podcast of the lecture? Second, if they are coming, why are the lecturers not requiring them to use their laptops for study? Why not break them into small groups and get them to do some online research then come back with group answers to share with the rest of the class?
In the article, the issue of ‘non-relevant’ multitasking during a lecture was raised in the form of a complaint from a professor. However, the aim should be to make the lecture engaging in its own right, so the students are not distracted by their online activity. If the professors can’t do this, perhaps they should give up lecturing and find more interactive ways of engaging students.
In another post on electronic pens, several people reacted to my criticism of using technology to facilitate the lecturing process. Yes, I do believe that lectures have their uses. In fact, I attended an excellent lecture last week. This was an inaugural lecture for a newly appointed research professor. In this lecture, he summarised all the research he and his team had done, resulting in treatments for several cancers and other diseases. This was a public lecture, so he had to satisfy not only other leading researchers in the area, but also a lay public with often no science background, He did this by using excellent visuals and analogies. The lecture was followed by a small wine and cheese reception for the audience.
The lecture worked for several reasons. First of all, it was a celebratory occasion bring together family, colleagues and friends. Second, it was an opportunity to pull together nearly 20 years of research into a single, coherent narrative or story. Third, the lecture was well supported by an appropriate use of graphics and video. Lastly, he put a great deal of work into preparing this lecture and thinking about who would be in the audience – much more preparation than would be the case if this was just one of many lectures in a course.
So, yes, there are occasions when lectures work very well. But they should not be the default model for regular teaching in higher education. There are much better ways to teach that will result in better learning over the length of a course or program.