The Great Laptop Debate

March 1, 2010 by  

It happens every day. You’re sitting in class, laptop firmly propped in front of you, several windows open and ready: Facebook, Microsoft Word, perhaps a game on addictinggames.com. The professor lectures and you dutifully take notes, but in between those bursts of typing, your mind is elsewhere. Several people in front of you do the exact same thing; it’s a common and almost natural behavior for the modern university classroom, but what happens when the instructor decides to take away your laptop privileges?

This issue is beginning to spur debate in many institutions, with many instructors choosing to ban the use of laptops in their classes, even in larger classrooms where computers are traditionally accepted. So far the decision to allow or ban laptops is at the instructor’s discretion, but questions remain: should there be school-wide bans on laptop usage? Should instructors simply leave students to their own fate and allow them to multitask? Is some sort of compromise possible? The reasons for banning laptops are numerous, ranging from disrespect to distraction, but the arguments by students for laptops in class are just as compelling as those against.

Most instructors recognize the value in technology and what it can do as an aide in students’ learning. Dr. Lloyd Reiber with the Department of Educational Psychology and Instructional Technology within the College of Education, makes the point that many majors require laptops in class, and “they can be a great opportunity for enhancing learning.” Computers allow students to supplement information brought up in lecture and can even function as an interactive part of the classroom. In today’s tech-savvy society, it is impractical for a college instructor to ignore the benefits of such technology.

Despite the many advantages laptops carry for students, instructors continue to tell students to put away their laptops, for a few glaring reasons. Utilizing a laptop to take notes is convenient and works for many, but for instructors it is often just another way to shift students’ focus away from learning. Even if most students are using their computers appropriately, there are always those who use them as distractions or to multitask. In addition, not paying attention is seen as a serious lack of respect on the part of many instructors. Reiber uses the analogy of opening a newspaper at an orchestral concert; it is perceived as disrespectful and distracting to others.

But what’s wrong with multitasking? Most of us do it, and whether it’s surfing the web in class or texting while driving, everyone is guilty. Many even view multitasking in the classroom as a technique to enhance learning, since students’ minds tend to wander when faced with no tasks other than listening. In our culture, doing several things at once seems like the quickest and most effective way to get things done, and we are confident in our abilities as seasoned multitaskers. However, studies may show otherwise; one study conducted at Stanford University found that multitaskers actually performed worse on certain cognitive tasks while distracted than those who focused on one task at a time.

Many students still maintain that they concentrate and learn better with the distraction of a laptop. And while some instructors are willing to listen to their arguments and perhaps allow them the privilege with some stipulations, most just won’t buy it. According to Carla Topp, a disability specialist at the University’s Disability Resource Center, some people with certain disabilities, such as ADHD, may benefit from the use of a laptop; typing may be more effective than hand-writing and the organizing and editing functions of a computer may be reason to allow its use. Of course, instructors are always willing to accommodate those with disabilities, but what about students without a diagnosed disability, those who simply feel as if they learn more effectively with the distraction?

Some students choose to speak with their instructors at the beginning of the semester, hoping they will allow them the use of a computer based on the argument that they absorb more with the chance to multitask. Charles-Ryan Barber, a photojournalism student, is one of those people that feels he learns differently from others. “I tell them I concentrate much better while I’m actively doing something,” says Barber. “In fact, if I look like I’m paying attention, chances are I’m probably not, and vice versa.”

While this reasoning works sometimes, many instructors view such pleas with skepticism; Reiber says he would probably not buy into the excuse, but would further inquire as to what the student’s needs are and how he or she would actually use the computer to fulfill those needs.

What remains from all this discussion is a mess of opinions and speculation, with few offering a solution other than “leave it to the teacher.” While individual discretion may suffice for now, it is common knowledge that if a professor’s lecture is not particularly engaging, many students already have their minds settled elsewhere. Reiber says that one realistic solution is for instructors to get creative in the classroom to maintain student focus and to take advantage of the technology available to them. “The instructor has a responsibility, and the students do too,” he says.

If you want to know more about the laptop policies at UGA, check with individual departments, and be sure to check out the new Compact for Responsible Scholarship, sponsored by the Student Government Association (it outlines guidelines to be observed by both students and faculty in the classroom).

Laura Smith is a senior magazines major who should probably take a hint from this article, as she is horrible at multitasking.

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