Laptop and Filtering Policies for Classrooms

I had the pleasure of teaching in the Research Symposium for Spanish and Latin American Academics, held at Harvard University this August.  As part of a three-hour session on learning with technologies, I assigned an exercise in which groups of teachers (mostly at the university level; a few teaching younger students) had to work together to come up with policies on laptops in the classroom. In honor of the school-year that is starting up, here are their respective proposals, live-blogged (I’m just presenting what they came up with, as faithfully as I can, and not endorsing any of these views in particular, just to be clear):

Group 1: Laptops should always be permitted.  Elementary and high schools should have a policy where teachers control the content that students can see.  A firewall should be established to protect the information environment such that some content would be filtered out at some levels of learning.  In universities, the environment should be less controlled but still filtered for sexual content, games, violence, and other sensitive material.  A survey tool nationwide should be used to assess whether this approach is working for the students in support of their learning.  (The spokesperson declared that there was disagreement as to this policy in the group, but that they decided to present a consolidated front.)  Other group members reacted to this proposal with concerns about who will watch the watchers (i.e., who will keep an eye on the people who choose what to filter out of these school environments); how to deal with sexting; how well suited young kids are to use laptops appropriately; and so forth.

Group 2: It should be the right of the professor to decide whether or not to allow laptops in class.  It depends a lot on the topic one teaches, the level of the students, the extent to which the campus is wired, and the penetration of laptops for students.  There was a debate within this group: what happens when some teachers say laptops should be banned across the board?  Then the dean and the faculty of a given school should be able to take a vote to ban laptops.

Group 3: This group agreed that, for an undergraduate college, where there is wifi available across campus, it should be up to the teacher in each classroom to decide.  But there should be a student veto: if a single student objects, a teacher should consider whether to ban laptops to avoid the negative externalities of laptop use on other students.  Secondarily, teachers can expel students for using laptops in a disruptive way.  There should also be an informal users’ group which offers information to students and faculty about the costs and benefits of laptops in the classroom.  This group reported that they were animated by a trust in students’ ability to use technology in a responsible way and wish to emphasize education of students along the way.

Group 4: This group said that it should be up to individual teachers whether to allow laptops or not.  It depends on a complex series of variables.  It’s too hard to have any other single policy that will work for all settings — in marketing and mathematics courses, the issues and pedagogies are very different from one another.  The school should underscore that it is important to consider the needs of students and how best to use technology in the classroom.

Group 5: This group decided unanimously not to have a policy.  They decided instead that there should be 3 principles established: 1) freedom of thought: students should be free to do what they like with their minds; 2) freedom of speech and teaching: institutions should trust teachers to make good decisions about teaching, including laptop use; and, 3) the principle of commitment to a good learning environment: professors and students can agree on rules at the beginning of a semester.  The dynamics of the class are very important and should be the focus of the teacher, who should think about how much time is devoted to any given task or mode.

Harvard Library Report

Over the past nine months or so, a group of us have worked on a Harvard-wide Task Force to consider our library systems.  The report is being issued today by Harvard’s Provost, Steven E. Hyman, who chaired our Task Force.  Over the next year-plus, we will be working to implement changes in five key areas of the Harvard University library system.

Harvard is fortunate to have one of the great library systems in the world as a crown jewel.  The library system plays a central role in the intellectual life of our community, both as physical spaces and as resources of teaching and scholarship.  The 1200 or so library staff at Harvard, as I’ve come to learn, are simply extraordinary in terms of breadth and depth of talent.   But we can do more with what we have, and we can better position ourselves for the future — a future that will be “digital-plus” — than we are today.

As Provost Hyman wrote about the report:

“The report of the Task Force on University Libraries is a very thoughtful document about an extraordinary system. But it is also a stark rendering of a structure in need of reform. Our collections are superlative, and our knowledgeable library staff are central to the success of the University’s mission. The way the system operates, however, is placing terrible strain on the libraries and the people who work within them.

“Over time, a lack of coordination has led to a fragmented collection of collections that is not optimally positioned to respond to the 21st century information needs of faculty and students. The libraries’ organizational chart is truly labyrinthine in its complexity, and in practice this complexity impedes effective collective decision-making.

“Widely varying information technology systems present barriers to communication among libraries and stymie collaboration with institutions beyond our campus gates. Our funding mechanisms have created incentives to collect or subscribe in ways that diminish the vitality of the overall collection.

“Libraries the world over are undergoing a challenging transition into the digital age, and Harvard’s libraries are no exception. The Task Force report points us toward a future in which our libraries must be able to work together far more effectively than is the case today as well as to collaborate with other great libraries to maximize access to the materials needed by our scholars.”

I am excited to work with members of the Harvard library community and many others — inside and outside the community — to build on the promise of this report and the Harvard library system.

Graduate Seminar on Research Methods on Internet & Society

Amid all the noise of the start of fall semester, Eszter Hargittai and I are launching a new experiment: a course taught jointly (and separately) at Northwestern University and at Harvard University on research methods in Internet & Society.  We’ll post as much of the material as makes sense to a publicly-accessible wiki.  Students can register for credit at either school.  In the Harvard version, we’ll do 6 of the 10 sessions joined by video-conference.  The other 4 sessions at Harvard will be just with HU students.  In part, we will work in these extra sessions toward planning a General Education course to be offered for undergraduates on Internet & Society in 2010-11 by Berkman Center faculty from around the university.  If you’re a Harvard or Northwestern graduate student, we’d especially love to hear from you.  The course starts later this month.  I’m sure I’ll be learning a lot myself from social scientists, computer scientists and others who are blazing new trails with methods for studying life and other phenomena on the Net.