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.