The Case Against Laptops in the Classroom

Jim Liebelt | Senior Editor of Publications for HomeWord | Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Case Against Laptops in the Classroom

*The following is excerpted from an online article from New York Magazine.

Last week, at the Aspen Ideas festival, there came an interesting little moment between Kentaro Toyama, a computer scientist, and Jim Steyer, a lawyer and entrepreneur. Both declared that they’d banned laptops and other electronic devices in their lecture halls.

"Many of the students actually appreciate that," said Toyama, who teaches at the University of Michigan, "because it encourages real discussion, and they know that as soon as there’s a laptop in front of them, they’re going to start Facebooking each other, and that means that they’re not present for the class."

Steyer jumped right in. "You should know that in my Stanford classes five years ago, I started banning laptops," he said. "There was no way they were paying attention. They all whined about it constantly for the first three weeks." He added that his colleague, with whom he co-taught the course, was terrified they’d made the wrong choice. "She was like, They’re gonna just kill us on the reviews!" he said. But by the end, their students, too, expressed gratitude.

[Such views] may also represent a new kind of logic when it comes to electronics and education, suggesting that more professors are willing to rethink the value of these devices – or at least express their reservations aloud. Not that many years ago, it would have been considered curmudgeonly – hostile to progress, even – for teachers to voice concerns about laptops and iPhones.

Last year, though, no less than Clay Shirky, the Internet philosopher whose views on new technology have always tended toward the enthusiastic, wrote an essay for Medium explaining why he, too, had reluctantly decided to banish smartphones and laptops from his NYU classroom. "Both the form and the content of a Facebook update are almost irresistibly distracting," he wrote, "especially compared with the hard slog of coursework. ("Your former lover tagged a photo you are in" vs. "The Crimean War was the first conflict significantly affected by use of the telegraph." Spot the difference?)"

Attention researchers have long known that we humans are lousy at task-switching. Our brains simply aren’t optimized for it. Slaloming between two streams of information almost guarantees that our learning will be shallower; it prevents us from making intelligent and lasting associations with either body of material. In the case of a distracted college student, one of those bodies of material – a Facebook feed, say – isn’t important to master in the first place. Yet as Shirky points out, social media software is hypnotically diverting, like a tropical bird in mating season – noisy, seductive, colorfully-plumed. How could a bored undergraduate resist? ("Our visual and emotional systems are faster and more powerful than our intellect," he notes.) Indeed, how could nearby students resist? (This, to Shirky, is the most powerful argument for banning laptops: They’re diverting other students in the vicinity: "Allowing laptop use in class," he wrote, "is like allowing boombox use in class .")

In the last few years, a number of studies have also shown, quite convincingly, that students learn better – and get better grades – when they take notes by hand. The reason, quite simply, is that typing leads to a certain compulsivity about getting the words just right, a slavish attachment to literal transcription; whereas writing, which is slower, forces people to process and summarize the ideas they’re hearing.

Source: New York Magazine