Laptops Aren’t the Problem: The Meetings Are

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?

Getting More Out of My Brain

Regular readers will know I love mind maps, and more or less anything that works harder with my information. I use MyInfo as my outliner, I use MindManager to organize my thoughts, but I’ve only ever dabbled with other programs that I feel could do a lot more for me than they do: 3D Topicscape, Axon, NoteStudio, EverNote, TiddlyWiki and PersonalBrain.

All of these are worth a look, if you like experimenting with storing your information differently. Topicscape lets you fly through your data, and it works remarkably well. Axon is a very freeform but powerful idea organizer, NoteStudio and TiddlyWiki are personal wikis — think web-type links but in the comfort of your own home. EverNote is a huge toilet roll of stuff you can save from anywhere.

The last one, PersonalBrain, has always been very seductive, because it looks so darn good. It just feels like it should be something I use a lot. Plus, people I admire like Jerry Michalski use it, and love it. If someone like him uses it, surely I can get something out of it?

But as people smarter than me have said: PersonalBrain seems to be a tool waiting for a purpose. But what? If one treats the brain as a hierarchy, then quickly one gets frustrated. I know a few people use it as a file manager, and that makes sense — easier to jump to other subfolders that are close by, but not in the same folder — but so far I’ve only found one really good use for it: Contacts.

I don’t know a huge number of people but they’re now spread out all over the world and staying in touch with them has become something of a lottery. Sometimes I get to see them when I’m nearby, but more often than not it’s only when I’ve got back home do I realise that I was near where they were, and we didn’t hook up. PersonalBrain works best when nodes, ideas, or whatever it is you’re storing, have more than one connection, either up (Bloke X lives in NY but also works for company Y) or sideways (he used to live in Singapore, and used to work for company Z).

This lets me see the connections between my friends by which group of people in my world they’re connected to, but also lets me see them organised by company, or whatever. It may sound daft but I’m now doing a better job of staying in touch. And even reestablishing contact with folk I haven’t seen for a decade or so. PersonalBrain has to be thanked for that (tip: you can drag names from Outlook into PersonalBrain which speeds up the process; doubleclick on their names in the Brain and they’ll load in Outlook.)

Now I’m trying to find other ways to use the software. The fact that we haven’t found out what needs these programs fulfil may, I surmise, be because we haven’t been thinking hard enough.

Social Technology vs Antisocial Technology

After chatting with Jerry Michalski, a great guy and a keen supporter of social software, I was given to thinking. This is what I thought: I know other people use the term, and I haven’t read everything they’ve written, but I feel the world of technology can be divided between ‘social technology’ and ‘antisocial technology’.

To me social technology is technology that brings people together. Antisocial technology tears them, or keeps them, or encourages them to be, apart. An example: A phone brings people together because it connects them (unless the person is dialing a recorded message, I guess, but even that’s a form of social interaction). An example of antisocial technology: Earphones. They squeeze out the environment and make it much less likely the wearer will interact.

So how well does this distinction work? And is it useful? Well, one complaint about computers is that they tend not to bring people together. But is that true anymore? Email, chat, blogging, Wikis, online gaming, all create interaction. But is that enough? Are these interactions improvements in quality, or just quantity? The answer, to me, would determine whether the technology is social or anti-social. (Antisocial is defined as either meaning ‘shunning contact with others’ or ‘unwilling or unable to conform to normal standards of social behavior’.)

Jerry, if I’m recalling our conversation correctly, made a distinction between social software and productivity software (Office, all that kind of thing). He pointed out we’ve been obsessed with the latter for so long, whereas now we’re beginning to explore social software, such as networking sites, Wikis, chat etc. I think that’s an excellent way of looking at things. Productivity software is great for helping us write that memo, that report, that novel. But it doesn’t help us ‘socialize’ it, as Indonesians have a habit of saying. By that I mean it doesn’t push the end-product out into the world so it bumps into other people, other ideas, other cultures. To that extent productivity always meant ‘personal productivity’ and while it helped a lot of folk, it also helped cement the idea that sitting at a computer is a solitary, introverted and antisocial activity. (Ignoring for a moment the ‘team productivity’ component, which still keeps ideas within an established, i.e. not a social, group — the team.)

Looking at things away from the computer, I can easily see an argument that it’s not the technology that’s social or antisocial, it’s how you use it. True, up to a point: SMS is a great way to communicate with people, so it’s social technology, right? Not if you’re doing your texting while your bored, disgruntled and ignored spouse is sitting opposite you in a restaurant. An MP3 player is not a social technology, because it seals you in from the outside world. But not if you find yourself sharing what you’re listening to with strangers, building connections where they didn’t exist. So there are grey areas.

But I see the distinction as good enough to survive this nitpicking. WiFi is a great social technology, as is VoIP. Both allow people to communicate with other people in cheap, efficient ways. These technologies are likely to be truly revolutionary because of this, and that is most clearly visible from where I am sitting right now: a place like Indonesia, where the infrastructure is lousy, the phone companies expensive and slow to deploy new lines, and people yearning for a cheaper, better way to learn, share, work and meet new people. Viva social technology.