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Laptops in class: tool or distraction?

I hope you will read my story in today's paper about the growing number of professors who choose to restrict laptop computers in class.

There was more good material than would fit in the story, and I wanted to give voice here to some other students and faculty who spoke with me about laptops and pedagogy.

Laptops appeared in 1981. No one had a laptop at Wesleyan University when I was there in the late 1980s. My roommate had a word processor. That's all it did. A friend across the hall had a Mac.

About a decade ago, the laptop apparently became sufficiently cheap and powerful that large numbers of students started toting them to college. At first, universities were delighted -- here was a way for a professor to lead an entire class in online research, and a way for students to type perfect transcripts of the day's lecture. Schools everywhere went wireless.

Then, slowly but surely, the laptop evolved from a vaguely boring educational tool into an infinitely alluring diversion. More powerful computers and speedier connections allowed students to download everything from that day's newspaper to an entire episode of "The Office." Professors, marshalling mere words, could no longer compete. One by one, faculty began banishing laptops from their teaching spaces.

Three or four years ago, laptop bans drew protest. Students felt they were being denied the latest educational technology. But as more and more professors clamped down, students became accustomed to being asked to leave their laptops at home, just as they had known better than to turn on a cell phone in high school biology class.

W. Joseph Campbell, a professor at American University, blogs today about laptops in class. I had interviewed him for the article.

"True enough: Laptops can be a serious distraction, which is a principal reason I prefer not to see them open in the classroom," Campbell writes.

"But another factor, one the Post article doesn't mention, is that of classroom etiquette.

"It's undeniably discourteous to be IM'ing or texting or sending email, especially in discussion-based classes. It's rude: Rude to the instructor, and rude to fellow students to be so dismissive of their contributions."

Tapan Nayak, a statistics professor at George Washington University, bans both laptops and cell phones in his classes. (Cell phones have come to rival laptops in their power to distract, especially in the iPhone era.)

"Once the students open their laptops, I can't see what they're doing," Nayak said. "I explained to them, 'You don't need a laptop in this class.'"

Zach Hanover, a GWU junior, told me how he manages to multi-task on his laptop in class, occasionally surfing the web but always returning to the professor's lecture and his notes. "There are times," he admitted, "where you kind of get lost in what you're Googling."

Pierre Thompson, a Georgetown student, told me of his preference for handwritten notes."Some students use their laptops productively," he said, "but many just use them to escape from the lecture hall altogether."

Thompson said, "The one time I recall ever bringing a laptop into class was when I had to complete another assignment that was due on the same day, and I completely tuned out of that class. That was extremely disrespectful to the professor and the other students who were there to learn."

Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia, has restricted laptops in some classes and allowed them in others. He is an Internet scholar and understands the device's utility to students: "The laptop is just a central hub of their scholarly experience."

But he told me he wishes students would choose to switch off their laptops on their own, to slow down and savor the college experience. They'll have plenty of time to be stressed out and mentally exhausted when they are adults.

"The university is a place to slow down and think," he said. "It may be the last time in your life that you have the luxury to slow down and think."

By Daniel de Vise  |  March 9, 2010; 11:51 AM ET
Categories:  Administration , Online , Pedagogy , Technology  | Tags: American University, George Washington University, Georgetown University, pedagogy, technology  
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I really enjoyed your article on the Laptop ban. I, too, was in college in the late '80s/ early '90s, arriving with my typewriter and transitioning to word processors and first generation Macintosh computers at the college's computer lab.

I don't know to what extent faculty members here at Towson University put such laptop restrictions onto their students. As a student in the UB/Towson MBA program, I've encountered only one course in which students were told explicitly to turn their devices off.

I think the key term here is "devices" (as Siva Vaidhyanathan noted in your article.) It may seem obvious when students are using a laptop, but the real issue is students communicate increasingly on much smaller mobile devices, which are easier to conceal.

Perhaps some students would think twice about letting online diversions get the best of them if they took a moment to calculate the per-hour cost of their education. The cost of an hourly lecture at the private college I attended was roughly $80/hour (NOT including interest on the student loans) -- and that was nearly two decades ago.

Stu Zang
Media Relations Specialist
Towson University, Towson, Md.

Posted by: StuZang | March 9, 2010 1:26 PM | Report abuse

Thank you for your article. In class laptops are not only being utilized in college classrooms but also in many elementary and high schools. 3 years ago our high school administrators instituted a one-to-one student laptop program. every high school student has their own laptop, all text books are on-line and the school wifi is always on. Guess what. Our district's standardized test scores have gone down more and more with each and every consecutive year that the school has been using the laptops. The students admit to using them in class to goof off and even look at porn. Of course...hello.....they are 15 year olds! But the big fad right now in education is one-to-one laptops to encourage "21st century skills". The kids are now brilliant at cutting and pasting. I say what's wrong with 19th century skills?

Posted by: Trixie62 | March 9, 2010 2:09 PM | Report abuse

Interesting article, but please remember to report on community colleges too. Our students are also faced with the temptation to use their laptops. Our faculty have a variety of strategies for coping.
Your next article in this theme should be on the use of cell phones in class. The texting is about out of control. I have banned phones/texting in all of my classes but still occasionally catch people and have to tell them to put away the devices.

Posted by: drl97 | March 9, 2010 3:51 PM | Report abuse

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