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Laptop bans in classes receive mixed reaction

Many professors are banning the use of laptops in classes, citing the tendency for students to become distracted.
Many professors are banning the use of laptops in classes, citing the tendency for students to become distracted.

In some classrooms, pen and paper are back in fashion.

Increasingly, Duke professors are banning laptop computers from their classes, citing the high potential for distraction. Computer usage is commonplace at Duke—approximately 95 percent of students bring a computer to campus, with 95 percent of those being laptops, according to the Office of Information Technology. As more professors across the country are limiting laptop usage in their classrooms, some students agree that laptops can take away their focus from lectures and are on board with the changes.

“This [ban] will allow students to focus on the material that the professor presents instead of being distracted by notifications on Facebook or reading a new email,” freshman Jennifer Hernandez said. “In my experience, students paid more attention and increased their participation when a professor banned computers from class.”

Rebecca Bach, director of undergraduate studies and associate professor of the practice for the sociology department, said that approximately a third of the faculty in her department no longer allow laptops. She noted that limiting laptop usage is a national trend that extends beyond the humanities.

“My partner teaches computer science at another university, and even teaching computer science, he does not allow laptops in the class,” Bach said. “It’s something that’s happening everywhere.”

Students who use laptops in the classroom may inadvertently distract their classmates as well. A 2006 study conducted by Winona State University found a negative relationship between laptop use and student learning. The data indicated that laptop usage hindered students’ ability to pay attention and comprehend lecture material. According to the study, students who used laptops in class spent considerable time multitasking, and laptop usage posed a significant distraction to both users and their peers.

Alex Glass, instructor of invertebrate paleontology and science education for the Nicholas School of the Environment, said he allowed laptops until Fall 2011 when he noticed the computers disrupted the entire class.

“It’s just a distraction that’s disturbing to the class,” Glass said. “I have had people who were looking on various websites, and people behind them who were not on their computers were looking at their screen and laughing.”

D. Sunshine Hillygus, associate professor of political science, said that she banned laptops about four years ago. Since then, her students have been more engaged in her classes, she said.

“There’s definitely more participation,” Hillygus said. “[Laptop abuse] has been most blatant is in larger classes, where students have a sense that the class is so large, and they feel like they’re anonymous and don’t feel like they have to participate. That feeling has spread over to my other classes as well.”

Other professors, however, have bucked the trend. Lee Baker, dean of academic affairs for Trinity College of Arts and Sciences and associate vice provost for undergraduate education, wrote in an email Tuesday that he encourages computer use during his classes.

“I often ask people to look things up, confirm a date, find an image, etc.,” Baker said. “However, I also understand how they can be a distraction, and why some professors choose to prohibit them in a classroom setting.”

Indeed, laptops are not the cause of student distraction, Michael Munger, professor of political science and economics, wrote in an online debate in December 2011.

“The fact is that laptops don’t waste students’ time; professors do,” Munger said in the debate. “Laptops are neutral tools.”

Munger cited the nature of the human mind as the reason that some students are distracted in class.

“The problem is not the distraction offered by the laptop,” Munger said. “It’s the need of the human mind to have things broken up into pieces where concentration is possible, for focused attention is interesting and enjoyable. If the students weren’t looking at their laptop, they would be dozing or doodling.”

While some students appreciate the reduced distractions by banning laptop use, others find that taking notes the old-fashioned way is more arduous and time-consuming. Freshman Mansoor Safi noted that his animation professor banned both laptops and cell phones from the classroom, adding that the policy makes it more difficult to take notes.

“In a lecture-based class like that, I would like a laptop as he can say things rather fast, and I am a much quicker typer than I am a writer,” Safi said.

The University allows professors to set their own policies regarding note-taking tools.

“Laptops can help achieve learning outcomes or they can distract from learning outcomes,” Baker said. “The professor is in the best position to evaluate the use of laptops in his or her classroom.”