A debate has sprung up on my campus lately about whether it is acceptable to use a laptop in class, with a technology panel and two school paper articles on the subject. I wrote last January about my decision not to use a laptop in class based on my inability to keep up with typed notes, but rather than actual note taking, the current debate is largely over the way that students slack off with their laptops in class. While many students do use their laptops to take notes, it is my impression that even more use them to check their social networks instead of paying attention to the lecture.
The problem stems from a lack of communication between students and professors. Professors need to inform their students of their policy on laptop use in class, and students need to ask professors’ permission before they bring theirs out. Over my seven semesters in college, I have had a professor list her laptop policy in the class syllabus only once. This should be standard. Quickly googling “laptop syllabus site:.edu” brings up hundreds of class syllabi with varied laptop policies, but including one is by no means standard, especially at my college.
Students should also communicate with each other more and tell their classmates when their computer use bothers them. I’ll admit it, when I’m trying to pay attention to the lecture, even someone’s screensaver in the row ahead of me can be a major distraction. My friend Cordelia was recently quoted in our school newspaper on this subject saying, “I personally don’t bring my laptop to class … So instead what I do in class is sit around and watch everyone else use their computers.” Making students aware of when their laptop use distracts classmates should lead to more courtesy.
The paper also brought up the idea of a “myth of student distraction,” saying that when a student has a laptop in class, the professor assumes that the student is slacking off rather than taking notes. I think professors deserve more credit than that. A professor in the front of the room can tell at a glance who is watching them, who is writing or typing notes, and who is just staring at their screen.
Where the “myth of student distraction” does become a problem is when professors impose a blanket ban on laptops without considering students who cannot learn well taking written notes. Teachers are obligated to provide reasonable accommodations to students with disabilities, and allowing digital note taking is one such allowance. But where do you draw the lines among students who have a medical disability requiring a laptop in class, students who could take notes by hand but simply prefer to use their computers, and students who would rather check Facebook than pay attention? I think this is up to the professor to decide. If the professor is not distracted by the tapping of digital note taking in class, why impose restrictions? But if having a distraction-free class would improve the quality of the lecture, I think professors should take a stand and restrict laptop use. Either way, colleges should not impose a policy on every class, and should instead leave the choice to the professor.
Another issue is whether the college has the right to tell us how to waste our tuition money. The paper quoted another one of my classmates, saying, “If I’m distracting myself, I’m devaluing my education. It’s my problem.” I completely disagree. Having your laptop out not only distracts other students, but is disrespectful and discouraging to professors. The professor has the right to create rules to foster a productive classroom environment. Saying laptops are not allowed is no different from saying that you must show up to class on time.
In all fairness, it’s pretty hypocritical of me to universally condemn digital goofing off. While I don’t use my laptop in class anymore, I’ve had classes in which we sat at workstations instead of desks, and sometimes the urge to check my email is too irresistible. Still, when students spend entire class periods playing games, distracting classmates, and clearly not paying attention, why come to class at all? Stay home, or stop distracting the rest of us.