The pen is mightier than the keyboard
Laptop use in class is distracting and unnecessary
Frigid and half-asleep, I nestled into my seat in Ruffner Hall last Wednesday, ardently awaiting another lecture by Melvyn Leffler, Edward Stettinius professor of history. What I got instead was a spasmodic tirade on the ‘extracurricular’ use of laptops in classrooms.
Leffler didn’t hide his disdain for the machines. To him, Web surfing during lecture was blatantly disrespectful and utterly distracting. The perpetrators were also effortlessly distinguishable behind their seemingly inviolable screens. So, after flirting with the idea of banning laptops altogether, he ended his consternation with a plea to students to use them more judiciously.
But this appeal to our ethics didn’t seem to suffice. My (admittedly unscientific) survey of luminous screens across the hall during lecture revealed the staple mix of Facebook pages, Gmail accounts and ESPN scoreboards. Rather than relying on hallowed student self-governance, Leffler should have used the stick he briefly brandished – a blanket ban on all laptops. And all University professors should follow suit.
Laptops distract not just their users but those around them. Over the past four years, I’ve encountered virtually every breed of laptop abuser – the Facebook stalker, the Victoria’s Secret fashionista, the incessant ESPN score-checker, the Gmail addict, the New York Times politico, and even the Food Network queen. And no, it’s not just my wandering mind or short attention span. In a 2006 study by Professor Carrie Fried at Winona State University, students identified other students’ laptop use as by far the biggest source of distraction during class (their own laptop use was second).
Laptops also inhibit classroom discussion and learning. Note-taking, which should involve thoughtful information translation, morphs into mindless robotic transcription. Slower, old-fashioned note-taking forces students to filter information or sieve out important concepts because they can’t write that fast. Laptops, by contrast, encourage verbatim transcribing. The former is learning, the latter is copying. And professors know which one they should encourage in an institution of this caliber.
Robots aren’t just individually mindless; they are also socially disengaged. Professors ought to promote an interactive classroom with some class discussion and student engagement. Laptops stifle this. Moments of reflection or introspection during lecture are treated as windows for Web surfing rather than opportunities to ask inquisitive questions. After banning laptops from his classroom, Georgetown Law professor David Cole found in an anonymous survey that about 80 percent of his students were more engaged in class discussion when they were laptop free. I suspect that more is at work than Georgetown students’ geekiness.
One less draconian solution would involve imposing punishments on individual violators rather than depriving the collective of their electronic sweethearts. That is logically true but practically unfeasible. It’s unclear to me how (or why) professors and their teaching assistants would police their lecture halls, tyrannically singling out potential perpetrators. They have better things to do. Besides, lest you think we are dealing with just a handful of bad apples, Professor Cole’s anonymous survey revealed that 95 percent of students were using their laptops for purposes other than taking notes. Good luck individually policing that.
But won’t laptop-less students just devolve back into doing Cavalier Daily crossword puzzles or doing their homework for another class? Maybe. But that’s much less distracting than having a portable machine with conversations, shopping and news media. And just because we can’t ban lesser forms of student distraction doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ban its worst manifestation yet. In addition to banning laptops, professors could (and some already do) give explicit warnings about reading newspapers in class.
Concerns may also surface about those with learning disabilities. Obviously, exceptions should and would be made for these students. To a certain degree, they already have been. The Learning Needs Center can provide excuse slips for these students, or even ask another student in that class to take notes in carbon copy form. And that’s worked fine so far.
Frankly, I’ve enjoyed some sporadic laptop distractions courtesy of Victoria’s Secret or the New York Times. But laptops are an affront to the spirit of learning. Professors shouldn’t shy away from banning them from the classroom because of some misplaced notion of individual freedom or accepting modernity. Students who sign up for a class have a duty to listen with the same undivided attention that a professor devotes to teaching. No innovation ought to change that bedrock principle of reciprocity.
And since the movement to ban laptops has barely gathered steam at this University, let me make an appeal to my fellow University students in the meantime. If you don’t like a class, drop it. If you don’t want to go to lecture, don’t go. It’s your right. But if you’re going to attend lecture, don’t preclude other students and yourself from learning. I love my laptop dearly, but I always tell her I need my personal space in order for our relationship to flourish. Its a tough 50 or 75 minutes, but she understands. I suggest you do the same.
Prashanth Parameswaran’s column appears Thursdays in The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at email@example.com.