Gaming the System

Laptops in the classroom are clearly a divisive issue as demonstrated by the NPR article on the different approaches to technology in the classroom. The conversation does seem to be very polarizing, but often times the different sides seem to be talking past each other. Of course laptops, much like other tools available in the classroom, have helpful applications in the classroom under the right circumstances, but I think when people discuss banning laptops they aren’t teaching a class that uses laptops as a tool or teaching aid. It seems strange then to take extremists positions when the use of technology in the classroom is self-evidently situational.

This gets at a larger issue that I’ve found intriguing during my professional development: Is it the job of the student to pay attention or the job of the professor to keep the attention of students? Should professors aim to reach only those that demonstrate interest and engage with the material, or is it necessary to make sure that every last student is engaged in the class?

I struggled academically during my undergraduate career, often times because I was on my laptop not paying attention. I eventually had to come to my own realization that doing such things wasn’t in my best interests and take responsibility for what was going on. Isn’t putting the onus on professors to be entertaining or to strive to keep the attention of all students merely absolving the responsibility of the student to take control of their own education? Students have always gazed off into the distance or daydreamed since time immemorial, why put the pressure or responsibility entirely on the professors?

Additionally, the exploration of the different methods of learning developed from video games or other types of problem-solving is an intriguing idea. As a “gamer” I recognize that there is an inherent drive to learn to master the mechanics of a game, to be able to adapt to different challenges to reach an ultimate goal. This can also be accomplished in board games or interactive/physical games, not just video games (if conferences in my particular academic concentration are anything to go by “simulations” and other game-like teaching methods are clearly becoming more popular and publishers/academic-focused companies are creating more and more products to meet that demand).

Ultimately, I do think that laptops could create better learning environments if used correctly, For instance, the introduction of games (both video and traditional) in the classrooms could create better outcomes than the traditional lectures. As a teenager, I developed an interest in history and politics through the video games I was exposed to and has led in many ways to a deeper understanding of certain historical events than I might otherwise have had if I had only learned about history through books or academic lectures. There would be some cool ways to incorporate games into courses to promote that type of active learning, but there will still always be students who aren’t interested in whatever form of teaching is being offered.

In the final analysis, some students like lectures and others hate it, the same goes for video games or other methods of learning. It’s unclear how this tension could be resolved or how any clear cut distinction about what teaching method is “better” could be made given these issues.

Please let me know your thoughts on this issue, I’m legitimately curious to hear what other people think about the different approaches to learning and class management.


  • Gary Lupton


    Great post introspectively considering this topic! I think you’ve really identified a fundamental issue in the discussion. We are looking for the “one-best-way” instead of thinking of instructional strategies as tools in our toolbelt. There’s a saying that if all you have is hammer then every problem looks like a nail. As a guy who enjoys the occasional home repair project, I can say first-hand that hammers have very limited uses in the overall breadth of what you need to do in most home repair projects.

    You really captured this well when you said, “often times the different sides seem to be talking past each other.” It’s a problem of point-of-view, specifically the fact that the only one we care about is our own because we are convinced we are right. We need to remember that learning is a personalized thing. We don’t all learn the same way, which is actually really good for all of us. Maybe the answer is providing a “menu” approach to learning so that students can match the approach that best fits them, whether that means gaming, lectures, reading, simulations, hands-on, or whatever else. That presents some major issues for the instructor, but over time it could be something that can be accomplished.

    • Ray Thomas

      Thank you for your reply Gary. I think the “menu” approach to learning would be quite useful to fill the needs of as many students as possible. I think it’s important to really be able to include all types of students and not just swing wildly (to continue the hammer metaphor) hoping that one single solution presents a cure-all!

  • Negin Forouzesh

    Hi Ray,

    It was a quite comprehensive discussion on the pros and cons of using digital technologies at classrooms. As a computer science graduate student, I have always carry my laptop to any classes. It is often essential to be able to follow-up what the instructor teaches on my laptop. On the other hand, I can understand those people who dislike the idea of having laptops in classrooms; as depending on the topic, laptops might not be a helpful learning tool but just a distracting device besides cellphones and tablet! Therefore, as you mentioned, I agree that “the use of technology in the classroom is self-evidently situational”.

    • Ray Thomas

      Thanks Negin. I think sometimes we get so caught up in trying to “fix” problems that often we forget that maybe the “problem” isn’t problematic for certain people and not others.

  • cdimaio

    I think you hit the nail on the head. This topic is too polarized, there is not a right or a wrong answer or solution that is applicable in all scenarios. I do not think that it is a instructors responsibility to ensure that students are engaged and remain engaged. That is something that can in my opinion only come from within. As you mentioned, after some reflection you realized that you were not being best served by you actions within the class. I would venture to guess that someone could have brought that to your attention, but most likely you would not have listened until you were ready to.

    • Arash

      The struggle is to transform that reckoning experience into something that does not feel like a punishment, and for many, doesn’t occur too late and at great cost. I don’t have any good answers of course, but the question I’m asking myself is how do we teach students that taking responsibility for their attention is in their best interest.

      • Ray Thomas

        I’m always trying to warn my students about those dangers. I try to be honest with them in my own experiences that I understand that some lectures or topics might not be all that exciting or appealing, but that they can recover from not doing well or by asking questions/attending office hours if they really are struggling. I think, ultimately, giving students the knowledge that there are resources and support available to them when they are going through that realization helps.

  • Jon LLoyd


    Wonderful post! I don’t think the professors need to be “entertaining” so much as engaging. It’s the student’s job to pay attention, it’s the instructor’s job to hold attention. You’re right to point out the situational nature of technology. I’ve always rolled my eyes at the “no tech allowed because it’s distracting” rule the same way I’d roll my eyes at a professor who says “no notebooks because I don’t want to see doodling”. Quite frankly, it’s insulting.

    It’s funny you mention board games. As for the game style learning, I agree that this is in no way limited to video games, but video games may offer the most flexibility and major applicability. I remember my teachers in high school (particularly social studies) would incorporate their own version of Jeopardy! using either computers or index cards and poster-board to help students identify what areas they needed improvement on before an exam. Even the people who made The Oregon Trail educational comptuer game originally had envisioned it as a board game ( The video game model allows for feedback to be incorporated and updates to improve the game for all involved at once without having to worry about material concerns or incorporation issues beyond the initial setup.


    Jon LLoyd

    • Ray Thomas

      Thanks for your comments Jon. I definitely had things like “Jeopardy” and other things in mind when thinking about games in the classroom. Some of the best class sessions in high school, in my mind, were those activities. I do think its a great way to get students to engage with the material outside of a traditional teaching methods.

  • timstelter

    Interesting view points Ray. I haven’t quite considered (or have forgotten) that the Students need to put forth the work as well. I wonder then that effort on both sides must be established to be able to create the “best” learning experience. My intuition is that professors who make it ‘easier’ to digest the information is shown to be putting in the “most” effort to do so. I then wonder if it’s delivery and medium of information flow is what’s key to making the learning possible. Laptops can be a blessing or a danger in this regard — and with us being the educators of the future it’ll be our job to shape its use rather than the generation prior who are somewhat forced to accept this change in education.

    • Ray Thomas

      I’m glad my post gave you something to think about. I do suspect that what you said is correct vis-a-vis the “best” learning experience might be produced by professors who make information more accessible. I just wonder if the different topics covered might make it more or less difficult to find the balance that allows for easier access of information and whether laptops or other aides can provide assistance in that effort.

  • Angelica

    I whole-heartedly agree with you on the topics mentioned in your post. I too believe that it is difficult to take an extremist side when discussing technology in the classroom. For one, as generations change, perspectives and variations of need change. Some students are great multi-taskers. I for one can be working on something on my laptop while someone is speaking to me and I could tell you everything they said and retain it. But to some it is a sign of disrespect as if you aren’t actively listening. It is impossible to know whether one needs the additional stimulation to learn better or not while teaching but if the position of banning laptops in the classroom is taken, then it may put some students at a disadvantage. Millennial’s and younger have grown up in a digital world so to ban personal technology in the classroom doesn’t make sense to me. I do not feel it is the faculty’s responsibility to keep the students attention, although one should aim too. The student should value their education and want to learn, therefore it is their responsibility to pay attention and retain the information being thought the best way they can.

    • Ray Thomas

      Thanks for your comments Angelica. I agree that students now have grown up in a radically different learning/teaching environment than many of those charged with providing further education at universities. I think it will be interesting to see how things develop as more and more “Millennials” enter education and begin to come to terms with these issues as well.

  • Davon Woodard

    I just asked my colleagues (professors, post-docs, and undergrads) where they stood on this issue, and much like the literature it was split. However, the one thing that we agreed was that it was the responsibility of the learner to learn. To me, the responsibility of the educator is to provide a learning environment that in engaging and designed for various learning styles. In high school, I had a teacher who would write out overheads and it was our responsibility to sit and copy them down verbatim for a hour. Outside of this, I don’t see many ways to FORCE students to engage with the material. As I mentioned on another post, I have been in higher ed pre- and post-laptops, and if someone isn’t going to pay attention, they don’t need a laptop to do it.

    • Ray Thomas

      I agree with you in that I think it is responsibility of learners to learn. I think even with writing out overheads you can’t really force people to focus on the material or engage with it. Students can find ways to avoid that, as some people just seem not to care at all about the class they are taking. I think this is especially interesting at the university level where it is essentially the choice of the student to attend which classes and pursue the degree in the first place.

  • Amy Nelson

    I put this on and will just copy it here in case you miss it on the other tool:
    ” Is it the job of the student to pay attention or the job of the professor to keep the attention of students? Should professors aim to reach only those that demonstrate interest and engage with the material, or is it necessary to make sure that every last student is engaged in the class?” I say both. I think it’s our job to meet our learners where they are. We shouldn’t have to be performers (all the time), but should be prepared to support collaborative and social learning with people who will be unique and diverse. One lecture size won’t fit all.

    • Ray Thomas

      Thank you for your comments, Dr. Nelson. I do agree that one lecture size wont fit all, but I am also left wondering about the students who, even in their elective classes, don’t engage with any type of activity, be it a traditional lecture, interactive activities, etc. How would we then meet the learner where they are if they aren’t there to really learn at all?

  • Minh Duong

    Hi Ray,

    Awesome post! I totally agree with your comment on the use of technology in the classroom being “situational”. I think it really depends on the classroom environment and the material you are working with. I took a couple of microbiology lab classes in my undergraduate career and there was always a big conflict of computers versus no computers. Most of the lab classes I took tried to say no to having laptops because of the potential for pathogens/germs to come in and out of the lab on the laptops. I think, in this case, it was probably in the best interest to limit computer usage, but in another class where the material is heavily lecture-based and not hands-on, it may be different. One thing I wonder now as I reflect on the lab classes is: what if there are students who do perform or learn better on a laptop in a lab class?


    • Ray Thomas

      Thanks for your comment Minh. I think you raise an interesting question. How do different environments affect student’s ability to use laptops or limit their use when they might need them? It’s an interesting dilemma in your case, as there is a valid reason not to have laptops but it is still putting people at a potential disadvantage even if they don’t mean to do so.

  • Hani

    Hi Ray!

    I definitely had my fair share oof courses where I paid little to no attention, instead played through entire videogames during lecture (Many games of Civ were played against classmates in the same lecture as me, during lecture, especially in my later years of the first undergrad.) The thing is, for each course that was like that, I had courses that enraptured me, whether by surprise due to the instructor or simply due to the course content. The courses I’ve had the hardest time paying attention in were ones I was being outright forced to take due to aministrative silliness; I knew pretty specifically what I sought to learn to be able to do, but degrees are not structured around student interest and growth, they’re built around canonical standardized “disciplines” that we hyperspecialize into.

    Which is really the lens thru which I see the discussion you’ve raised, about whether it’s teacher’s or student responsibility for the student to be attentive in class. I wonder if the reason this particular axis of polarization seems to not fit is because it’s a lose-lose situation students and teachers are being forced into due to degrees being defined largely independent of any particular student’s interests, goals, and needs? It’d be a massively different degree to get, for sure, but if students had actual, compelling *reasons* to be in the classes they were in, would we be even having to decide how to deal with such things as electronic distractions in the classroom?


    • Ray Thomas

      Hani thank you for your post, I definitely appreciate your point on the potential false dichotomy of teacher/student responsibility. I think to some degree, however, professors shouldn’t necessarily be held responsible for reinventing the wheel, so to speak. Some students might not always find particular classes engaging regardless of different methods and at some point the student has to take responsibility to overcome obstacles. This isn’t to stay that professors shouldn’t innovate or adapt away from lectures, just that all systems have drawbacks and at some point the responsibility is going to need to rest on the student to insure that they are getting the most out of a situation, even if they aren’t as interested because of a particular teaching style.

  • Connor

    I personally have never been much of a laptop user in terms of taking notes in class, as I find that I learn better when writing. However, I also know others who use their laptops all the time and are very efficient with note taking on the computer. I don’t think it is our responsibility to mandate what the students are using in the classroom, but I do think we need to step up as teachers to examine what our students want to use in the classroom and lean into it. As tech becomes more prevalent with students, we should design lessons to use that tech or give students different opportunities to use their own preferred method of participating. It gets hard in a university setting, as the classrooms are such varying sizes and the curriculum is so different between departments. But I think that just makes it more fun for us teachers to try to develop engaging “games” for each style of classroom.

    • Ray Thomas

      Connor, thank you for your response. I fully agree that as time goes on we need to be more in-tune with technological developments and the ability to offer a wide variety of experiences and flexibility. I do feel like some of the issues you’ve pointed out need to be more systematically addressed in the literature.

  • Ibukun Alegbeleye

    Great post, Ray! I enjoyed reading your blog post and the discussion we had in class the other day. I believe there is no one method that fits all. However, the instructor must be clear of the type of method he/she is adopting – traditional lecture, games, or a mixture of both. Any of them could be effective if administered with some intentionality. I agree with you that whether or not one allows laptops in the classroom would depend on the method one chooses to adopt. In my class, while students don’t play games, they use their laptops to take a quiz at the beginning of the class. However, because I don’t want them surfing the net while in class, I ask them to put away their laptops after they finish with the quiz. I incorporate more of a case studies problem-based type of learning in my classroom, and my SPOT evaluations have been very good (I’m not sure whether that’s a true yardstick of effectiveness). I’d think if I needed them to play games, then I’d let them use their laptops to play the games, then put it away afterward – you can only do one thing at a time, right? Lol

    • Ray Thomas

      Thanks Ibukun, I agree completely that there has to be clarity on the part of the instructor. I definitely think that students BELIEVE they can do more than one thing at a time, but clearly that isn’t the case!

  • Travis Matthews

    Dude! Awesome stuff. Please keep writing more things like this. I really like the fact you went so in depth on this and really explored the topic as much as you did. I read a lot of blogs but usually, it’s pretty shallow content. Thanks for upping the game here!

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