In "What to do about laptops in lectures?" (08/19/2013), Daniel Willingham discusses the research by Sana et al, 2013 on the effects of laptop multitasking on classroom learning. The research found that the sort of web browsing students do in lectures not only reduces their learning, but that of people around them who are distracted.
However, I suggest that the methodology of the study provides the answer to
Willingham's question. In the study, some students were given a list of tasks to do, not related to the topic of the lecture. One typical task was the student looking up the TV guide. But what if the students were given tasks to do on-line, which were related to the topic of the lecture?
I am one of those students who sits with a laptop on during lectures and seminars. But I am paying attention. What I am doing is making notes, and looking up the materials the lecturer is talking about.
The idea of sitting passively for an hour while someone talks at you seems bizarre to me. Students need to be actively engaged and for many, answering the occasional question asked verbally is not enough. A list of tasks to be performed would be useful for people who need to be more active.
Many of the events I attend are Unconferences, where there is an on-line conversation taking place between the participants in the room and sometimes also remote participants. At events such as Bar Camp Canberra and GovCamp, conversations takes place via text chat, in parallel with the presentation. Some events have a screen showing this conversation to the audience during the presentation. As a presenter it took me some time to get used to the idea that the audience was discussing what I was saying, as I was saying it, but at least they were paying attention.
The use of a text chat channel is routine for on-line webinars. This is used for administrative purposes, such as reporting the sound is not working and for participants without microphones to ask questions of the presenter. However, the text channel is frequently used for participants to have a parallel conversation. This works well where there is a moderator to help keep this conversation on track (as the presenter is usually too busy presenting to read the chat).
Something similar to the text channel and moderator happens in large scale Interactive Engagement, in active learning TEAL Rooms (Technology Enabled Active Learning). With this the presenter gives a short lecture and sets a task for the participants to perform in tutorial/lab mode. The tutorial assistants then engage with the groups of students. However, this mode of learning may be too active and fast paced for many people.
I have noticed that lecturers and fellow students are far less bothered by someone taking paper notes, or using a tablet computer, than a laptop. This may be partly because paper and tablet computers are smaller and do not have a keyboard which can make noise. However, it may just be that people are used to paper note taking.