Should Laptops Be Banned From The Classroom?

Yesterday in class I made a rather controversial comment that triggered a bit of nervous laughter among my students. To be honest I don’t even remember what I said. I think it was something about the value of a liberal arts education. Whatever the case, I mentioned (half-jokingly) that I did not want this comment to appear on any of the Messiah College Facebook pages devoted to the funny or controversial things faculty say.

After making the comment I noticed a few students in the back of the class looking at a laptop giggling. It appears that one of them immediately posted a blurb on the faculty and student quote page called “Overheard at Messiah” that said: “John Fea (history prof): I just don’t want this to end up on listening or overheard at messiah or whatever.” I only know that this happened because the student who posted it told me after class. He seemed to have no qualms about telling me, his professor, that he had been on Facebook during my class.

More and more students now bring laptops to class and with gaming laptops under 500 bucks becoming common, student are arm to the teeth with computers, and naturally this spells social media mischief. Messiah, like most campuses, is a wireless campus. Facebook updates like this can be made immediately. I have even had students use Wikipedia to check the factually accuracy of lectures.

Today’s The Tufts Daily has a revealing article on this very subject. (HT: University Diaries). The author is K.C. Hallett, a senior psychology at Tufts. I will let him speak for himself:

Now I do not, as a personal rule, usually bring my laptop to class. I prefer to focus intently on the professor’s brilliant words, taking every detail to heart, because I care deeply and passionately about learning — and because every nanosecond of class costs like $600 of my tuition fees or something ridiculous like that. I also do not bring my hulking PC to class because it gets self-conscious around all the younger, sleeker Macs. Not to mention, I am also too lazy to lug it uphill. But mostly, the reason I do not bring my laptop to class is because of this learning thing we are supposed to be doing.

However, even with all my reasons, I was still surprised when my professor gave us his fair warning on in-class laptop use. How could he say something like that? What are students supposed to do without laptops? Taking notes on a laptop saves paper and also allows one to easily organize ideas. Laptops are used as tools of learning!

I believed this until last week when I came back to my senses upon arriving late to a certain class and having to sit in the only seat left in the very last row. From this new vantage point, I counted numerous laptops in use around the room. Through the course of a 75 minute class, I observed what was on these screens: One person on Blackboard.com, four people taking notes in Word documents, three people viewing the professor’s PowerPoint presentation; four people on Wikipedia.com, seven people on Facebook.com and eight people checking their e-mail. There was also one guy who played games for literally the entire class period. In fact, it could be that most students were actually on Facebook, and I just didn’t see because I was so distracted by the laser shooting around this guy’s screen.

As I continued to be distracted by the browsing all around me, I noticed students visiting other notable Web sites and programs. These included: Gmail, Google.com, the Bloomingdale’s Web site (such cute boots reviewed at http://bootbomb.com/the-best-combat-boots-that-are-waterproof-and-comfortable-reviewed/pink-combat-boots/ this season!), iChat, PerezHilton.com, Google Calendar, CNN.com, SI.com (oh, Sports Illustrated…), YouTube.com (including a trailer of the upcoming “Toy Story 3;” did you see it? It looks so good!), online versions of sudoku and solitaire, Verizon.com and various blogs.

One kid in the second row was even checking his bank account. Everyone I creeped on seemed to be using at least one application that was not strictly class-related; most used several.

A few conclusions can be drawn from this study.

Firstly, laptops give you enormous power to distract yourself or goof off in class in a more covert way than doing The Tufts Daily’s crossword under your desk.

Secondly, you can be pretty sure that if you’re doing something personal on your laptop during class, some creeper like me is going to be looking over your shoulder. We can’t help it. The Interwebs are so full of flashing lights and pretty colors; it’s like a carnival on your screen. So you might want to think twice about what you’re looking at (this means you, Bank of America guy), or who you’re Facebook-stalking.

Clearly, most laptop-in-class users are paying no attention in class and therefore shirking duties as committed undergraduate students at such a fine institution of higher learning (and active citizenship). Never mind that most of these in-class laptop users are actually the most knowledgeable students (and active citizens). If we all really cared about learning, instead of “taking notes on our laptops” we would simply take notes on real paper and avoid the temptations of distracting those around us and our own selves.

Making these observations has made me realize something valuable. I know next class, I will be sitting up front with the people who care about learning. Better yet, I’ll be closer to my cute teacher’s assistant.

I think Hallett is describing a pretty common phenomenon. In my large US Survey lecture course I will sometimes wonder up the aisles where, if I look back, I am positioned to see the screens of student laptops. Most students are taking notes. Some students are on Facebook or e-mailing and quickly switch screens when I turn around to walk back to the lectern. Some students actually don’t care and continue to play their computer games.

Let’s get some reaction on this one from students and professors. Should professors be concerned that students are surfing the web, updating Facebook, or writing e-mails during class? Should professors ban laptops from class?

The lines are open!

10 thoughts on “Should Laptops Be Banned From The Classroom?

  1. I have to admit- while I don't think I ever did this in your class, I did have some classes where I secretly hid a personal book in front of my notes or textbook and looked like I was taking notes/looking at said textbook and listening to the lecture but I was really reading for pleasure. And… if you looked at my notebooks for some classes, you'd see all the doodles I drew… the problem with laptops is that they are much more distracting not just for the immediate user but for several people around them. I feel the quandary… I think I would ban them, but if I had Powerpoint slides, I'd make sure to post them with enough time to print them out before class, so that students don't feel rushed taking notes. Really, for your non-survey classes, there's a lot of discussion, and you don't necessarily need to be taking a ton of notes anyway… just participating in the discussion. And laptops would just get in the way of that.

    I wonder if you could purchase some kind of device that could block the internet signals in the room, so that the students could use Microsoft Word but not the internet?? 😉

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  2. I like Rusty's idea as well. I'll never forget the time in my economics class when a cute girl three rows up from me started shopping for lingerie in the middle of lecture, and for the life of me I can't remember what that lecture was about. The distraction element can definitely be strong.

    At the same time, taking notes on my laptop saved me during my American Catholic History and Early American Republic classes. I'm not exactly the fastest scribe, but my typing speed allowed me to keep up with the pace that both professors were setting. In that sense I see an enormous benefit towards laptops in the class, so long as they're kept in the back.

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  3. I'll never forget the time I was pretty much forced to watch the girl in front of me in Created and Called for Community using Photoshop to edit a picture of her and her boyfriend making out. She was sitting in the second row, and none of us could look away. Oh how I wish the professors (who happened to be President Phipps and Provost Basinger) had caught her in the unsavory and incredibly distracting act.

    That said, like most college students I've been on both sides of the screen- distracting myself or being distracted by others. Thanks to fine work from Dell, my laptop eventually died and I'm no longer tempted.

    My word for professors- you will have to choose between banning laptops and refusing to give out your PowerPoint notes. Since so many of you are fond of going through these slides at lightning speed and overloading them with information, most of us really can't keep up with pen and paper anymore.

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  4. Great post.

    I allow them, but I also walk around the classroom when I lecture. Some students take notes, while others are surfing. Luke–I like your rule about laptop users sitting in the front row. But Rusty, you make an important point as well–it could be a distraction.

    Perhaps asking a few more questions in class, sometimes specifically to those with laptops will remind all to stay engaged for the duration of class–and hopefully foster good discussion!

    I'm hoping students weigh in on this post!

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  5. As someone who went to college in the dinosaur era before wireless and when laptops were behemoths, I can't imagine the temptations all of the students must face while “taking notes” on their laptop. I would agree that even the most diligent students probably can't resist a quick peek at Facebook, etc. I do like the compromise that Luke made to have laptop users in the front row. While I was a junior, I was the freak using my laptop (sans wireless, of course, so most people weren't doing it) to take notes due to an injury that made writing very painful.

    By the time I got to grad school, there were a few students using laptops and most of them weren't taking notes – even in grad school! It's just to easy to convince yourself that you can just “quickly” check on a few things, but then suddenly the hour is over, and you have no idea what happened. I think people today think they can multitask with their cell phones & laptops while having a conversation or listening to a prof, but it's really much harder than you might think.

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  6. I tell students at the beginning of the semester that it has been my experience that students who DON'T use laptops do better in my classes. I dwell on this for quite a while, actually – pointing out that even the most diligent student might occasionally find the urge to check their facebook too much to handle.
    My compromise with students is that if they simply can't be in class without their computer that they have to sit either in the back row or on the sides to avoid distracting students like the one who wrote the article in your post.

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  7. I banned them this semester. I had a few protests from students who seemed like legitimate note-takers and we worked out a compromise: laptop users may sit in the first row of the class. So far, so good. (But thus far at my university, I have not encountered a class with a majority of laptop users. I am not sure what I would do if I taught classes like the one described by the Tufts student.)

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