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Author: Sarah Gaby and Howard E. Aldrich

Calls to ban laptops in college classrooms are based on accumulating research showing their negative effects not only on users but also on students sitting nearby. Survey research documents that students believe they can simultaneously pay attention to what is happening in the classroom while surfing the Web, checking emails, and visiting social media sites, but cognitive neuroscience says otherwise. Most of the negative press appears to stem from the use of laptops in large lecture halls and in classrooms where Internet-connected laptops are serving no pedagogical function. But do the problems stem from the physical presence of the laptops or from instructors' neglect of the pedagogical potential sitting on students' desks? Based on our experiences and those of our colleagues, we believe that the pedagogical payoff for instructor-guided laptop use far exceeds the potential for misuse. Advocates point out that laptops and mobile devices are innovative technologies that have changed the available tool kit for teaching. But to be truly beneficial, laptop activities must be crafted to meet the needs of specific courses. Here are five suggestions for ways to strategically integrate laptops into classroom instruction. 1) As a tool for instantaneous surveys. With appropriate tools, laptops and smartphones that instantaneously collect and display data can be used to quickly engage students, even in large classes. For example, programs such as Poll Everywhere invite students to use their devices to answer questions posed during class, displaying the answers on the classroom screen for instant analysis. Teachers can see immediately whether students understand a concept and respond accordingly in real time. They may also be useful for collecting opinions on a topic, quizzing students and anonymously displaying aggregate answers, and taking attendance. 2) To level out the knowledge base. Instructors often struggle to determine how much students already know about a topic, either from previous classes or assigned reading, so that they can pitch the students' lessons at the right level. Using brief and predetermined amounts of class time, laptops and other devices let students explore topics in class, based on their own knowledge base. For instance, if students bring up topics in class that seem like cases for elaboration, they can be given five minutes for online searches. They thus obtain new information quickly without instructors having to carry the burden of explaining every topic that comes up or making unwarranted assumptions about students' existing knowledge. This technique uses the same approach students regularly employ when they need to learn new information outside class. 3) As a tool for class activities. Many teaching formats—such as the flipped classroom approach—rely on students' carrying out in-class applications of what they learned prior to coming to class instead of hearing about it from the instructor for the first time. Instructors expect that students will have spent time outside class reading and learning material, taking notes, and preparing for class, which they then integrate into classroom activities through work on laptops and other devices. 4) For real-time problem solving. Often during class discussions, questions will arise that cannot be answered through the assigned readings. For instance, when discussing a social movement, students might wonder what sorts of “free spaces” the movement's participants used. Instead of instructors providing answers, laptops and smartphones allow students to find the answers on their own. This approach empowers students to learn for themselves rather than relying on the instructor, thus reinforcing a metacognitive strategy that can be used outside the classroom. 5) For student-led teaching. We often ask our students to lead activities or teach topics, and laptops provide a mechanism for sharing video clips, relevant photos, and other information. Finally, critics argue that laptops on desks in front of students disrupt student-teacher face-to-face contact. In fact, laptops can help instructors stay engaged with students. Moving around the classroom while students are using their laptops for individual research or group work connects professors to students and provides a platform for informal interactions. Staying connected to the students rather than standing behind a podium, we suspect, greatly reduces the chances that students will use their laptops for noneducational purposes. Nonetheless, it's OK to say “close your laptops” or limit their presence in other ways when they're not being used for learning activities and exercises. Whether or not laptops are a part of your classroom, we hope these ideas will spark new ways to use these tools to engage your students. Sarah Gaby and Howard E. Aldrich are from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Howard E. Aldrich can be reached at Howard_Aldrich@unc.edu.