September 18, 2005


Bringing a laptop to a classroom presents a particular problem. Its tempting to locate the problem in technology, in say students sitting at laptops IMing friends or reading dirty emails. But the relevant technology is actually far more primitive and its called a hinge.

First off let me note this is really about small classrooms, seminars, settings around a table small enough for everyone to know everyone's name. It need not be a classroom, its may as well be a boardroom, a conference room, a situation more relevant to a corporate setting than say a large lecture in a university.

I attend a technology oriented school, large for a graduate program, and a big majority of the 200+ students own a laptop. That's about 160 laptops that are officially discouraged in the classroom. This is a casual place, there never was a real ban, just a guideline, and there never was a real stated reason, beyond some mumbling of people surfing during class, and IMing their friends, etc, etc. The real reason though is clear as you sit around a table. The digital bits are somewhat irrelevant, students have found ways to zone out since before they invented puberty. The real problem with a laptop is one of walls, shields and hinges.

A laptop on a table is pretty nondescript, until you open it up that is. Suddenly the flat space connecting everyone in the room has been divided. A wall swings up and breaks the laptop user out of the circle of conversation. They can do it by daydreaming, but only in one direction. The laptop functions as a shield, it blocks both ways. The little portal into the internet doesn't hurt, but in the end it is the other direction that is most damaging. The physical vertical presence of open laptops on a conference style table shields the user from the speaker, interrupting the dynamic balance that guides a good "tabletop" experience.

Its exactly this reason that so many failed digital "notepad" type devices are on the market. Microsoft's initiative is the most prominent, but pen manufactures and assorted gadget makers have attempted to push into this space as well, with no major success that I know of. Why? Because of where decisions are made in modern corporations. Sitting inside a conference room, making those fateful product development decisions, what could seem more useful then a flat PC to replace those yellow legal pads and archaic pens. Of course that's just about the only place a generic notepad PC is really useful. They are necessary for computing while standing too, but stand up computing activities tend to be too specialized to map straight to a generic notepad device. So in a rather extreme version of a rather common mistake, the people in a conference room mistake their own needs with genuine demands for a product.

Now if a tablet PC where priced a bit closer to the legal pad side then the laptop side, then that might be a genuine product... Leaving the hinge aside the laptop filled classroom is a genuine improvement. Ignoring the largely unproven and uncharted idea of a backchannel behind, there are three main uses for the computer in a meeting or classroom, note taking, distraction and instant research. I'm not much of a note taker, perhaps the only valuable lesson in high school I actually learned from a teacher was that if you stop taking notes and use that energy to listen you might just learn a lot more. But some people are natural born stenographers, and the keyboard is their main tool. I knew one person who would take notes straight into Movable Type and publish them as a blog post at the end of class, quite effective.

Using the computer for distraction is the classic anti laptop in the room case, but I'm not sold. Sure their is a certain dynamic to IM that might pull people farther away from the topic at hand, but just how much does it differ from someone handwriting a love letter, doodling or reading all the small print on whatever they pulled from their briefcase? Any additional distraction the internet might bring is easily offset by what it can add to the conversation, no?

I like laptops being in a classroom for about two reasons, google and wikipedia. Fast, cheap information. An in room error correction machine. When used correctly the internet can transform a room from a closed information space, into an open one. For the most part this is a subtle addition, an anecdote here, a better definition there. But what can't be overlooked with error correction is that occasionally an error can unstablize an entire process, sending the room off on a tangent based not on reality but a mistaken fact. A group of people in a small room can sometimes produce the strangest results, a small lifeline to reality is perhaps a good thing.

Now if only they good get rid of that damn hinge...

Posted by Abe at September 18, 2005 05:51 PM


Interesting take. I've been considering using my Powerbook in class in my grad program, as I'm experimenting with using to keep track of notes and etc. But it just ends up feeling a bit rude to have the thing open while the prof and classmates are discussing, regardless of whether I'm simply taking notes or bored and cruising through flickr. Seems like a case where the technology would make life easier, but the social context creates a barrier.