Closing the laptop to learn

Students who use laptops for in-class distractions create digital hurdles that prevent them from receiving the education they pay for.

Students who use laptops for in-class distractions create digital hurdles that prevent them from receiving  the education they pay for.

As I sit in class trying desperately to decipher my professor’s lecture, my hearing is drowned out by the student next to me, fiercely typing on Facebook chat. Out of six other students in my periphery, not one is taking notes. One is shopping on eBay, another is checking out the latest on and another is assassinating people in a video game.

In the age of the iPad and wide-reaching Wi-Fi networks, the debate over laptop use in the classroom is becoming more and more complex.
I created a survey to measure the academic performance of students who bring laptops to class versus those who do not. Out of 38 participants, about 82 percent said taking notes the old-fashioned way helped them maintain focus best, and 74 percent said when they bring their laptops to class, they become distracted by sites like Facebook. Only 8 percent who bring laptops to class have a grade point average above 3.5, as opposed to the nearly 43 percent who don’t bring them to class.

“If I see a laptop opened, [that student is] considered absent for the day,” said William Cohen, a professor of community and regional planning who requests no laptops be used in his class. “I want their attention because that will facilitate their learning and because it will not distract people around them.”

Cohen isn’t the only professor with a policy like this. Nearly 45 percent of survey respondents said they had a professor with a similar practice.

It is each person’s freedom to decide how to go about their education – after all, they are usually paying for it.

At the same time, it’s sad that college students – who make up such a small, privileged percentage of the world population with the opportunity to sit in a college classroom at all – can’t even value that enough to log off Facebook for an hour.

“You get as much out of something as you put into it,” said Clara Haignere, an public health professor. “And you guys are spending a hell of a lot of money. I would think you’d want to get as much as possible out of those dollars.”

If I use the Internet in class, one reason my brain might first wander is the same reason I can sometimes be empathetic to the laptop abusers. Not to say it should always be an excuse, but some professors could better engage students in class to prevent Internet use in the first place.

Jonathan Scott, a finance professor and the head of the mobile computing program, said professors need to be in better control of Web browsing and work to keep everyone’s attention.

“Having a laptop in the class is just way too much temptation,” he said. “I know that if I’m not engaged, then I’m going to multitask. I think the challenge in the classroom is not technology but how you engage the students.”

Haignere’s classroom policy requires laptop users be looking up information relative to the course.

“It’s the teacher’s responsibility to maintain attention in the classroom,” she said.

Hopefully, teachers like Haignere and Cohen, who are aware of what students often do on their laptops and enact policies to prevent in-class Internet abuse, can take control of the issue before it goes too far.

The problem doesn’t apply to every case. When classes require students to work together on projects, I support the use of whatever technology will supplement learning.

But with individual users clicking through pages of Facebook pictures or assassinating people on video games, others can’t help but glance at what they’re doing.

It distracts everyone and takes away from the entire dynamic of the classroom. When everyone looks ahead, listens to the professor and participates equally, it is much easier to focus than when students left and right look obviously disinterested.

Cohen said his mentor from the University of Pennsylvania once asked him a question he’ll never forget: “Will the computer become a prosthesis for the brain?”

He’s mentioned this to his students countless times, but its meaning is usually lost on today’s generation.

“What’s happened is – and this has become endemic to our ever-changing electronic culture – that we accept these things. We don’t think about them critically,” Cohen said. “Could there be an impact that’s not good for my personality, character, physiology, learning? We don’t really think about that.”

Brittany Thomas can be reached at

1 Comment

  1. I find it distracting myself to have my laptop open during a lecture. I find myself thinking of other things and then searching pointless things instead of listening.

    I think we should definitely be able to sign off for an hour. But knowing how hard it is for college students, I understand why it seems junior high and high school kids can’t seem to get any work done because they go home and spend all their time on the computer.

    I wrote a piece about a librarian in Queens New York who’s trying to get kids learning, off the computer and still having it fun.

    Check it out here…

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