In the mid-nineties, Mark Morton was one of the first instructors at the University of Winnipeg to offer telecourses for the school, letting students tune in to his English classes via broadcast on a local community channel.
It's an approach to classroom technology that's long outdated now, as the Internet, laptop computers and smartphones have completely changed the education landscape. But there's discord in the academic community about whether to embrace digital tools in the lecture hall. Academics banishing laptops from their classrooms say they are part of a growing call to put an end to the distractions caused by the ubiquitous portable computers. Some say the temptation for students to check social media instead of listening to a lecture is just too strong, and they point to studies that show students retain less information when they take notes on a keyboard compared with writing them by hand.
But some professors say it's traditional teaching methods – not the computers – that don't belong in the classroom. To engage students, they argue, the way instructors use and talk about technology with their students needs to change.
Dr. Morton, now the senior instructional developer of educational technologies at the University of Waterloo, says traditional, lecture-style classes still work for many professors. But integrating other approaches, with technology as a tool, can foster a more inclusive environment.
"Consistently lecturing, that's very, very difficult for students to stay attentive throughout a 75-minute lecture," he said. "Or at least, it advantages some students who have that kind of attention and disadvantages others. Trying to create different kinds of learning activities can benefit everybody."
Chris Buddle, an associate professor of natural resource sciences at McGill, says the problem of student distraction actually presents an opportunity for instructors to rethink the way they teach. He teaches both small, seminar-style classes and larger, more traditional lectures, and maintains that a distracted student, whether they have a laptop open or not, is an indication of a larger problem.
"We need to adjust," he said. "The profs I know [who] do adjust, and do have more active learning environments, don't complain about technology in their classroom."
Dr. Buddle says that when students have the opportunity to "fact check" his lectures on the Internet during class, it often creates spontaneous discussions and opportunities to engage the class in new ways. He also integrates Twitter into his lessons, using a course hashtag as a way for students to share information and ask questions. But he still also teaches "with a piece of chalk," and says it's important for students to be focused on the notes they should take during the lessons.
Sean Kheraj, an assistant professor at York University in Toronto, says the "storytelling discipline" of history, which he teaches, will always lend itself well to a lecture format. But he hasn't found banning laptops to be an effective way to get students' attention. Having an open discussion about classroom expectations for using technology, he says, is more productive. Dr. Kheraj asks students who know they'll be tempted to surf the Internet during class to sit in the back row, to accommodate those who say they're distracted by other people's screens – a common request for professors who don't want to put a blanket ban on computers.
In the mid-1990s, Dr. Kheraj said, universities seemed optimistic about the potential for classroom computing, and pushed for programs to help students get access to technology. But less than a decade later, they were trying to ban computers from lecture halls after near-universal computing access came about "by accident," with computers becoming much cheaper and more portable.
Setting clear expectations about technology in the classroom is important, in Dr. Kheraj's view, to combat the assumption that the current generation of university students, as "digital natives," instinctively know the right way to work with technology in any context.
"If we're not teaching that in our classes, students aren't going to learn appropriate uses of technology," he said.
In Ontario, hardline bans on computers in university classrooms aren't possible. The province's Human Rights Commission mandates that individuals with disabilities have the right to accommodation. Because laptops might be considered reasonable accommodation, banning them outright in Ontario classrooms isn't an option – neither is allowing only students who have registered with campus accessibility services to use computers, since that would identify the student with a disability, and confidentiality is a necessary part of accommodation.
Susan Shifflett, an adaptive educational technologist at the University of Waterloo's Access- Ability Services, says laptops are "one of the accommodations that [are] standard," for students with anything from learning disabilities to psychiatric conditions. These disabilities, she notes, are often "invisible," and it's a person's right to decide whether they want to disclose the disability to others.
In his classes at York, Dr. Kheraj says technology in the classroom isn't something that should be shunned. It's part of his students' daily lives, and something that will follow them into the workplace when they graduate.
"I don't think compulsion is the best way to win students' attention. It's the best way to reflect on your teaching, the content of your course," he said.
"It's a better experience to be drawn to the material than held hostage."
Globe readers weigh in on the laptop debate
"I'm a straight-A student who happens to bring a laptop [to class], and I happen to pop on social media from time to time. I also engage regularly with class discussions. Stop policing adult learners and start letting our grades sort themselves out."
"How about the professors teach to the capabilities of a laptop by making the student more engaged? I mean, there should be a reason that education costs are skyrocketing. Yet besides content, the way professors teach has stayed largely the same since the dawn of time. The students pay you, professors. Get with the times and provide actual solutions instead of going backwards to achieve the ways you learned."
"I have a writing disability and it would be impossible for me to write legible notes, let alone keep up with the speed of the slides. I always sit at the back of the room so as not to distract people with my screen – although how distracting could watching me type on Microsoft Word be? If a professor were to tell me I couldn't use a laptop, I'd bring up a complaint. For the amount of tuition I pay, I should be allowed to use whatever device aids me in my studies."
"I can understand why teachers ask us not to bring in electronics, because too many students seem to go online whenever they feel bored by the class. On the other hand, the schools are moving to e-books only, so how are we supposed to follow if we can't bring any electronics to class? A bit mystified."
"I wonder if it would simply be best for schools to block some of the distracting sites and take it from there. It will weed out the students who use it for non-academic purposes, at the same time removing the distractions."
"As students, it's their responsibility to decide how to use their time. If they are on laptops doing something else and they aren't listening, well then it's their money they are wasting … not to mention potentially lower grades. Let's not be so quick to blame the professors – there are a lot of amazing ones out there."