Tasks and conversations

by Paul Maharg on 06/03/2012

Good post over on the Best Practices blog, Before you ban – empirical data on student laptop use, blogged by Kevin Ramakrishna, from Prof Kim Novak Morse’s doctoral dissertation (how refreshing to see someone’s area of expertise described as ‘legal writing’).  The laptop use is of course in-class (I guess what we’d call, in the UK, large-group teaching, though this isn’t stated), and the summary of part of Kim’s research reveals what we all knew, that students do indeed go ‘off-task’ in their use of laptops; but it unearths some interesting patterns in student use of laptops and raises some important questions.

Kim’s study set out to answer four questions:

1. What is the actual extent of laptop misuse in class?
2. Does off-task behaviour correlate to final course grade?
3. What classroom conditions promote off-task behaviour?
4. What classroom conditions redirect laptop users’ attention away from off-task

She and her assistants observed 95 students in class from the three year cohorts of the JD.  The results were not what you might expect.  The year group spending most time off-task was surprisingly second year; students with higher LSAT scores were most often off-task; exam results indicated that there was no correlation between high off-task behaviour and lower final course grade, nor was there a correlation between low off-task behaviour and higher final course grade.  The Best Practices post ends with a list of some of the conditions that gave rise to off-task behaviour, and strategies or ‘”workarounds”’ as Kevin calls them, that may reduce off-task browsing.

What do these results say about laptop use?  There are three points arising from Kim’s fine study.  Perhaps the most significant is the old point about the introduction of technology that I’ve blogged about before.  First, when any new and significant technology is introduced to any social situation it changes human behaviour, sometimes in hidden or unseen ways, often in quite overt ways.  Technology can also serve to clarify what has been happening before it arrived, and makes us more aware of what went on before more clearly (often attended by feelings of nostalgia [sense of loss] or relief [at technology taking over the risk/task, eg]).  Here, wireless laptops make overt the amount of time students spend off-task time.  Take away the devices and students will probably still be off-task – thinking off-task, day-dreaming, talking writing/typing off piste, etc.  The devices tend to amplify off-task behaviour of course, in that students can easily surf links.  But they also clarify how much students can go off-task anyway.  Laptops are neither a necessary nor sufficient cause; and sure, banning them is no real answer to the situation.

The second point is that the list of workarounds in the post that faculty are advised to use are basic good teaching practices.  They’re not workarounds for a problem caused by technology: teachers should be doing them anyway, regardless of the presence of laptops.

The third point has to do with that little word, ‘off-task’.  Where’s the boundary-line between on- and off-task?  Sure, some stuff eg Facebooking, is clearly out of bounds.  But there’s a lot of debatable land around the definition of ‘task’.  What if a student is thinking about issues raised by a teacher’s comment, not on point with the case under discussion, but maybe another case, or an issue of legal practice or principle, perhaps only tenuously connected to the present discussion – is that off-task?  Who defines what is off-/on-task anyway?  Teacher or student?  Or possibly a negotiation between the two?  What part does the wider community of students play in that (Kim deals with part of this in her observations, eg on how students seem to veer off-task if the teacher engages in conversation or Socratic method with one student).

In fact, is ‘task’ the right term to use for what could also be seen as a form of conversation?  It’s certainly useful in the context of Kim’s study because it clarifies what is being evaluated by the study.  But learning involves not just tasks: it also entails dialogue, and not necessarily about tasks, either (though of course it could be argued that conversation is just one more task that the students were asked to engage in).  Collaborative and discursive constructions of tasks are key activities for students, as they are for professionals. For students such constructions are essential as alternatives to the individualised, competitive mastery of specific areas of legal knowledge which constitutes much (though by no means all) of their experience of legal education. The importance of such construction for learning, and the varieties of voice that enable it, cannot be underestimated – see for example Wells’ studies of dialogic enquiry [1], and Mercer’s work on conversation [2] and ‘interthink’ and other types of talk, [3], Edwards on communities [4], Edwards and Mackenzie  on social context and identity shifts [5] and, further back, the work of Leont’ev (1979) on how collective activity shapes material and conceptual objects. [6]

Which is why this is such an interesting piece of research.  For what at first glance is a well-developed study on student use/misuse of technology, resolves itself into a more profound inquiry into what constitutes knowledge, for faculty and for students, and how we engage with it in learning.


  1. [1]Wells, G. (1999) Dialogic Inquiry  (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press).
  2. [2]Mercer, N. (1995, repr. 1998) The Guided Construction of Knowledge: Talk Amongst Teachers and Learners  (London, Multilingual Matters).
  3. [3]Mercer, N. (2000) Words and Minds: How We Use Language to Think Together (London, Routledge).
  4. [4]Edwards, A. (2005) Let’s get beyond community and practice: the many meanings of learning by participating, The Curriculum Journal, 16(1), pp. 53–69.
  5. [5]Edwards, A. and Mackenzie, L. (2005) Steps toward participation: the social support of lifelong learning trajectories, International Journal of Lifelong Education, 24(4), pp. 282–302; Edwards, A. and MacKenzie, L. (2006) Identity shifts in informal learning trajectories, in: B. van Oers, E. Elbers, R. van der Veer and W. Wardekker (eds) The Transformation of Learning  (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press).
  6. [6]Leont’ev, A.N. (1979) Activity, Consciousness, and Personality  (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, Prentice-Hall).

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