On the first day of the new semester, the professors for three out of my four classes mentioned that they discouraged the use of laptops in class. I sighed in disappointment with the rest of my classmates. But after a moment, to my surprise, I found myself feeling relieved. Taking notes on my computer for a few of my classes last year was certainly easier than writing by hand, but once I thought about it, I realized that I was mainly excited to be free of the constantly looming distractions of new emails or Facebook notifications—or the distraction of the student in front of me checking these same sites—and, most importantly, the individual walls of distance that the screens seemed to form between each student and the rest of the class.
Banning laptops seems to be a fairly popular decision in college classes and for good reason. In a piece in The New Yorker over the summer that argued for the banning of laptops in the classroom, Dartmouth professor Dan Rockmore cites a Cornell University study from 2003 called “The Laptop and the Lecture,” in which half of a class was given permission to use their laptops while the other half was not; the study showed that the students who did not use their laptops scored better on a post-lecture quiz.
It makes sense that the distraction of using a laptop, be it through visiting other sites or simply being consumed by the mindless task of typing, minimizes a student’s ability to absorb information. But it seems that the problem that we are attempting to solve by banning laptops extends beyond the laptops themselves and even beyond technological devices in general. The real question is rooted in the values and habits that our use of these devices has inculcated in us.
The average college student’s use of technology encourages a short attention span and a commitment to speed over slow and careful study, two traits which drastically change the way in which we learn. When we spend an afternoon juggling writing a paper with checking Facebook or creating new playlists on Pandora, we brush these distractions off as a normal, inevitable part of doing schoolwork, but most of us don’t stop to think about what it means that it is so ordinary, even expected, for us to be as easily distracted as we are. What does it mean that we would rather hop around among countless diversions than focus intently on the task at hand? Using these distractions now and then isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but their use has become second nature to most students. The popularity of this phenomenon is worth questioning.
The use of technology has not just affected the level of focus that we give to our work; it has also changed the quality of the work itself by offering us an opportunity to retrieve information instantly. No matter how reputable the sources that we find on Google might be, there is a difference between looking up a term in an instant search engine and going to the greater lengths of looking the term up in a book or discussing it with a professor. Technology offers us a world of information that is, quite literally, at our fingertips, and we are lucky to have such a vast array of resources at our disposal. But the consequence of this innovation is that we have learned the art of quick intake: We Google, we skim, and minutes or seconds later we close the tab, telling ourselves that we have finished learning about a particular topic. We’re often aware that this knowledge will likely disappear from our memory as soon as the test or paper is over, but even this can seem like a tiny problem: We can always Google the information again.
In a September article in the Journal of Higher Education, college student Nicole Short argues that laptops should not be banned from the classroom. Instead, students should be given the option of distraction, and if they truly do desire to learn, they will learn to overcome this temptation. This view seems overly optimistic. It would be ideal if students were able to actively make the choice to engage with their learning despite the rivaling temptations of technology, but in light of the fact that the need has arisen to debate whether or not to ban laptops from the classroom, it seems to me that we’re not there yet. College students might not be ready to choose learning, and it’s time for us to figure out why. It is our obligation as students to delve more deeply into the impacts of technology on our education and our values, and this can only happen through reflection about the influence of technology on what and how we learn. Technology can be a powerful tool for both harm and good in the field of education, and it is the task of professors and students alike to take steps to figure out how it ought to be used. Professors should encourage students to use technology in the right way and discourage them from doing the opposite, and most importantly, they should provide reasons for their decisions about the use of technology.
Banning laptops, or not banning them, is not enough. Technology has been around for a while now, albeit a short while, but real discussion about the ramifications of its use seems less common in college than it should be. The questions raised by technology are not just questions about distraction or temptation. They are deeper human questions about how we learn, and they must be addressed if we ever hope to reach an understanding of how technology should be used in the service of learning. Whatever decision professors or students might make about the use of technology in the classroom, these questions can serve as springboards for discussion about the importance, for example, of an engaging classroom environment, and about why complete focus and open interaction with one’s classmates are essential to this environment. Through these types of discussions, we can pave the way for an image of technology not as a replacement for older methods of learning but instead as a newer, shinier aid in the service of an ever-consistent goal: education.
Fattal is a member of the class of 2017.