Laptops Aren’t the Problem: The Meetings Are

by jeremy on March 22, 2008

Some interesting discussions about whether laptops should be allowed in class or meetings. This from Cybernetnews (via Steve Rubel’s shared Google Reader feed):

At the start of my last semester of school, I was taken back when I read the syllabus for one of my classes. It read something like: “laptops may not be brought to class because they distract both the student and the teacher.” For most of my college career I had gotten used to bringing my laptop to class to take notes because I could type much faster than I could write, and sorting and organizing notes was much easier. Here I was in my last semester and the teacher wasn’t going to allow a laptop. I was annoyed, but life went on without my laptop and I had to get used to writing my notes once again.

This is also happening in business meetings.

I definitely think it’s distracting to a teacher or presenter to have people tapping away on laptops. And, perhaps more importantly, distracting for people around them. Speakers at tech conferences can feel themselves battling for attention in a room full of laptop users who rarely look up. I often bring a laptop to interviews and type directly into it; I can tell some interviewees find this distracting, and it’s not good for the ‘hold eye contact to make subject comfortable and stick to topic” routine I try to instill in students.

But laptops are part of our culture now in the same way that notepads and pens were. The truth is that laptops are part of our productivity, and removing them doesn’t make sense since it punishes those people who have succeeded in meshing them into their lives. And besides, few of us have got so much to say, and are so good at saying it that members of the multitasking generation can’t do a few other things while they’re listening to us.

The downer is if the user is clearly not actually taking notes. Or not using the laptop to dig up useful information to contribute to the meeting (my favorite example of this is PersonalBrain demon Jerry Michalski, who can dig up interesting links related to what’s being talked about in seconds). And there’s another aspect to this: the flattening effect of the backchannel, where participants at a conference discuss what is going on onstage among themselves. In one sense this is good, since it gives a passive audience a tool to control the session, but in another it’s simply another distraction.

But I think we presenters/meeting leaders/speakers need to think harder, and throw out the old rule book.

I’ve tried to analyse why I as a teacher find it distracting. One student has been tapping away almost incessantly in class when I’ve been talking. And until recently I’ve had no way of telling whether she’s been writing a letter to Aunt Joan or IMing  or whether she’s so impressed with what I’m saying that she’s taking it down verbatim. But I’ve figured out the solution: just lob a few questions her way and see whether she’s flummoxed or in the flow.

The truth is that while it’s great to have everyone’s eyes on you when you’re talking, rapt fascination sculpting their features into a permanent O shape, those people are not taking notes. We don’t assume that people writing longhand are goofing off (although in my students days that was exactly what I was doing, writing lyrics) so shouldn’t we give laptop users the benefit of the doubt? I’d rather students had some record of what I was saying in class, even if it means they’re also checking email.

The bigger solution, of course, is to ditch the whole ‘presentation thing’ in favor of participation. I know my class are more attentive if they know I’m going to ask random questions of them. An audience is going to be more attentive if the speaker is not merely droning on but offering a compelling performance and engaging them as much as possible. A meeting leader is going to have the attention of the room if s/he doesn’t waste their valuable day giving some PR schtick but keeps it short and genuinely meets the other participant, rather than lectures them.

In short, the onus is always on the person who leads the meeting/class/conference to engage the participants. It’s not rocket science to figure out that all the laptops will clamp tightly shut if the meeting is so absorbing and lively that participants don’t want to miss a second of it, and feel their voice is being heard. And the teacher/presenter/meeting leader should make sure that there’s a decent record of the meeting so those who participate aren’t punished because they haven’t had a chance to take notes.

Laptops have been around long enough for us to have figured out a better way of absorbing them into our workflow. Campuses now have power outlets and lots of tables where students can work on their laptops. This is great to see (and I find it a tad strange that some lecture rooms don’t have the same deal.) These students are used to doing stuff on their laptops, and they’ll enter the workforce with the same mentality. We should be encouraging this. We need to figure out ways to work with this, not against it.

No Laptops Allowed! A New Trend?

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Graham March 23, 2008 at 2:16 am

I’ve decided to elave my laptop in the hotel room for conferences and events from now on. Stick with a notebook. I’ve found I’m missing too much, or just getting distracted, working on sommit, email, chatting. It’s nonsense. Sometimes you need to leave the tools alone, IMO.

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mattbg March 23, 2008 at 11:02 pm

Part of the problem, too, is that I think these classes/conferences/meetings are getting so broad and/or the audiences are becoming so large that people feel comfortable behaving as they do in their cars: everything’s anonymous, and nobody will hold you accountable for what you do.

There is no meaningful way for interaction to take place between speakers and large audiences using synchronous communication. The people with really good questions don’t think about them until they’ve fully absorbed what you’ve said. A lot of people are just attending because they have to (in universities, this is particularly a problem: to meet the target of an educated society defined by quantity of post-secondary education, we’ve allowed all kinds of people inside who don’t belong there).

It’s rude to ignore someone when they’re talking. If you were interacting in a class of conference with 5-10 people, I doubt it would happen. But the large audience makes the experience impersonal and anonymous. In meetings, it probably would still happen with 5-10 people because it’s seen as acceptable in meetings to behave this way (there’s often a minute-taker, so it’s not a foreign sight).

Personally, my mind isn’t as connected when I’m typing. Perhaps because I can type faster than I write, it’s possible to type everything that’s said. What’s really needed, though, is not to create a transcript but to synthesize and make notes of cues in the form of ideas. Since I could never write every word using handwriting, I have to use my mind to formulate more concise expressions. It’s more engaging. And, despite tablet PCs, this still isn’t very fluid on a computer.

I wonder why all lectures can’t simply be provided in audio format on the class’s website. It’d be very easy to do and would free students up to focus on other things, such as jotting the things that will help them absorb the material being presented.

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Graham March 24, 2008 at 4:11 pm

Couple of things I’ve found invaluable for the kind of work you describe. Years ago I took a teacher training course – invaluable to know practical ways of plannng lesson stages and engaging students.

Secondly, if I’m doing something more substantiao thsn an hour long presentstion – say a half day or one day session – I begin the session by saying there are no handouts on this course, but at the end of it I’ll give a blog address with all my notes, links, embedded videos, pictures and the like that I use during the session.

It’s about an hour or so’s extra work to set up but is very valuable to participants. They can of course then ask you questions on the blog. Thakfully, they don’t ask me *too* many and so my days arent filled answering follow up questions.

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Jeremy Wagstaff April 1, 2008 at 8:50 am

This from a friend who wishes to remain anonymous as he’s incredibly important and highly placed:

A) online vs offline laptops….the former are more likely to distract the owner

b) Most meetings are a waste of time – bad preparation, no clarity on objective or method of running the meeting, latecomers etc. If somebody thinks that bringing a laptop to a mtg is going to help the meeting better achieve its purpose then they are probably mistaken (apart from the specific need to project powerpoint etc). If it helps them contribute better then to my mind it probably points to the fact that like many others they didn’t properly prepare for the meeting.

C) Many of the people I encounter bringing laptops to meetings have a relationship with their laptop. You see them with it all the time…its symptomatic of a sort of addiction or a comforter of some sort. Furthermore most of the time when they do retrieve something relevant from the machine mid-meeting it is invariably a specifically detailed point that is too obscure for the forum to appreciate.

D) I think there is a role for a single laptop to be used as a meeting tool – not just for powerpoint but for mind-mapping of some sort. But it needs to be controlled.

E) 90% of the time a key objective of a meeting is to maintain or increase the motivation of the participants to work towards the next objective. Hence the need for full on sensory engagement and not have the laptop distracting the user or giving the impression to others that they are less important/relevent/interesting than the laptop…ie laptops tend to isolate users from the team-effect. If the majority are all playing with laptops then you might as well have an async meeting offline.

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