Virtually every student has found herself in the following situation: A professor is trying to stimulate an in-depth conversation in a small seminar class but ends up talking to a dozen students with their eyes cast down at their computers. This scenario is also common: A large lecture where half of the students are browsing on Facebook, leaving the other half—who, because of auditorium seating, are distracted by their peers—frustrated and inattentive.
In Tuesday’s editorial, we discussed the increasing role that online technology is playing in the classroom. Today, we turn to the most dominant use of technology in the classroom presently: laptops. The vast majority of the time, laptop usage detracts from the classroom experience. Before we spend further time and energy advancing fancy new technology in the classroom, we should examine the most prominent and—in our eyes—detrimental use of technology already. A simple move by professors to explicitly ban laptops, in both seminars and lectures, would significantly enhance learning—perhaps beyond the introduction of even more technology into the classroom.
The educational benefits of banning laptops would be considerable. First, it would remove the temptation for students to let their browsers amble to social media sites or other irrelevant content. Especially in seminar classes, the quality of discussion is highly dependent on each student being fully present. A student’s extraneous use of laptops in class is tantamount to saying, “I am not going to give my full attention in class today,” a behavior that is becoming ever more permissible.
Second, unnecessary laptop usage is disrespectful to one’s classmates, creating a negative externality that affects students beyond the laptop user. This negative externality is not confined to seminars. Laptops can be distracting in auditorium-style lectures.
Finally, in a Coursera-fixated age when the value of the physical in-classroom experience is often questioned, allowing laptop usage seems to be a form of giving up. Why convene class if students are half-present, constantly disturbed by text messages, games and Facebook? Coursera is touted as a way for getting students to mentally engage in learning while outside of the classroom. Laptops achieve the opposite effect: mental disengagement while physically present in the classroom.
Of course, there are legitimate uses of laptops in the classroom. But laptops should be used sparingly and deliberately—only where there is an explicit need. For example, if the professor wants the class to watch a YouTube video or quickly check a fact, laptops are warranted. Note-taking, an oft-cited reason to use laptops, is usually a poor justification. Pen-and-paper note-taking is a fine alternative, and the added convenience of typing does not outweigh the laptop’s distracting effects.
What is the point of holding class if people are not paying attention? This is not just about respect; it is also about the necessity of a physical college campus. The more time we spend on computers, the less important the on-campus college experience—which universities tout as a major benefit of an elite education—becomes. For the sake of their students’ learning and the college experience at large, professors should not be afraid to ban laptops from their classrooms.