By Alex Baggott
Walk into any modern college classroom and chances are you’ll notice that as the professor begins his or her lecture or starts the day’s discussion, some students will get out a pen and paper while others either open their laptops or flip the cover on their tablets. Whether you’re at a liberal arts college or a large state university, the use of technology in the classroom has increased over the past few years. A survey of students at the University of Michigan (PDF) found that more than half of them bring their laptop to class at least once per week. From my personal experience attending classes at Davidson College, I would say that this number only decreases slightly in the liberal arts classroom. Another study by the Pew Research Center found that 57 percent of recent college graduates recalled using a laptop, smartphone, or tablet during their time in college.
Proponents of laptop use in classrooms point out that students who use laptops take notes more quickly and that word processing makes their notes more organized. In addition, having a computer allows students to look at power points and other lecture tools on their own personal screens. Finally, as more textbooks are becoming digital, students want the ability to have access to the online text during class. However, more and more professors and administrations are wondering whether the benefits of digital note taking outweigh the distractions they can cause. Social media sites and online shopping websites are a few of the many things that can sidetrack students from listening to the lecture or participating in a discussion. However, their power to distract students is not the only argument against the use of laptops in classrooms.
According to Rebecca Schuman in Slate, Dan Rockmore, a computer science professor at Dartmouth College, has banned laptops in class saying “that any advantage that might be gained by having a machine at the ready, or available for the primary goal of taking notes, was negligible at best.” Rockmore suggests that laptops offer little to no benefit even when used for their intended purpose studies done by Cornell University and Princeton support professor Rockmore’s claim. They found that students who took notes on laptops performed significantly worse on conceptual questions relating to the material they learned. Although these students wrote more words than the ones who used pen and paper, they often transcribed the words exactly as they heard them, resulting in greater quantity of notes but less quality. In the same article, Pam Mueller, who led the Princeton study summarized their findings this way: “Our new findings suggest that even when laptops are used as intended—and not for buying things on Amazon during class—they may still be harming academic performances.”
With all of these studies suggesting the harm of laptops, it may be surprising to hear that, according to the Pew Research Center survey, only 2% of colleges have outright bans on laptops for classroom. The majority (56%) of schools leave the decision to ban laptops up to the individual professors, allowing those in Rockmore’s camp to have laptop-free classrooms without a blanket prohibition. Although this solution seems to offer the most freedom, others argue that the decision should be left up to students. Schuman, says that “the Laptop Police seems like one more way of helicoptering students instead of letting them learn how to be students—indeed how to be adults.” She suggests that policing college students turns them into “thirteenth graders,” and does not honor their ability to make their own choices about how they want to learn. Others offer more pragmatic solutions such as the use of stylus technology as a way to take longhand notes while still having access to technological benefits. Rockmore also mentions that some of his colleagues have divided their classrooms so that laptop users will not distract those who use pen and paper, addressing the concern that many who use the old-fashioned method have.
Although there is not a single solution to the controversial issue of technology in the college classroom, it seems inevitable that, whether we like it or not, students will continue to use these devices. Schuman, sensing this trend, argues that “banning them now is basically like standing very sternly on the beach, wagging your umbrella at an encroaching tidal wave.” However, as more research is done concerning their drawbacks, perhaps some action should be taken to mitigate the distractions they cause.
Alex Baggott is a junior at Davidson College majoring in English. Davidson College is home to the Gamma of North Carolina Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.