Are laptops a useful tool to facilitate learning in lectures, or are they a source of distraction? In this article, I’ll examine some of the pros and cons of the use of laptops, tablets and similar devices in this setting. My argument is that laptops should go. But what could be the implications of this?
In a recent online article in The Conversation, Bent Meier Sørensen explains why laptops, iPads and smartphones have been banned in lectures for two courses at Copenhagen Business School. He argues that most users of laptops frequent social media sites, such as Facebook, while in class. This diverts their attention away from the lecturer, and it distracts others.
To combat this, Sørensen and his colleagues have implemented three rules for the two courses. First, attendance is mandatory. Second, students must display nameplates and lecturers reserve the right to ‘cold call’ on students. Third, as mentioned above, laptops and the like have been banned from the lecture halls, where an exception has been made for breaks.
Critics of this approach might call it Draconian. Supporters may say it’s bold. To get a balanced view of whether it’s a worthwhile ban, it’s important to consider some of the merits of laptops, in this context. It’s clear that they can provide instantaneous access to information that can support the lecture material. Some people prefer to take notes on a laptop, because they can be quicker to type up, easier to edit and organise, and more accessible in a digital format than in a paper copy. Many students use them as a tool to advance their own learning in lectures — not as a source of distraction.
However, from my own experience, I can get distracted by people who mess around on their laptops. Why do some students bother to show up if they don’t want to be there and if they’re not mentally present? To me, not paying attention in class shows a lack of maturity and respect. This is why I think that attendance at university should not be mandatory. If you don’t want to be there, don’t turn up.
Learning does not occur through osmosis. And unfortunately for students, we have not yet reached the level of technology that is depicted in The Matrix, where it’s possible to upload information into the mind to reach the mastery of a skill, in a matter of seconds. Therefore, to acquire and retain knowledge, it’s necessary to be present in mind & body, to focus, to think, and to work.
But there is hope for anyone who disagrees. The famed theoretical physicist, Michio Kaku, explains that this process of implanting information into the brain is within the realm of possibilities. It just might be a while before we take the work out of learning. It should be noted that this ‘YouTube research’ of mine was conducted in my own time, not during a lecture. To build on a previous point, my personal experience is not enough to substantiate the view that we might be better off without laptops in lectures.
In an article by Tiffany O’Callaghan in NewScientist, the effect that digital technology has on the way in which we read and write is put to question. O’Callaghan explains how some people argue that smartphones and tablets might diminish ‘our capacity for sustained attention and deeper reading’. She makes a reference to the long history of often misplaced warnings against new technologies. For example, around 2500 years ago, Socrates spoke out against the emergence of writing and its effect on memories and learning, and in the 70s, there was concern over the effect of calculators in schools.
However, O’Callaghan cites research, which indicates that there is some cause for concern over this new technology. For example, a study by Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer found that students who took notes by hand tended to better understand lecture content and were able to remember more material than their laptop-toting peers. It is argued that although typing up notes may be faster, students often have to be more attentive and selective when they cannot record everything. They have to think more about what is being said and they are less prone to distraction.
But what would be some of the negative implications for introducing a laptop ban? As I’ve already mentioned, there are plenty of students who use laptops in earnest to help them in lectures, and do not get distracted by social media. A ban would unfairly punish those who have a different style of learning that works well for them.
Maybe a compromise could be reached, where all students who want to use laptops could be asked to sit nearer to the back of the lecture hall, so that their screen flicking doesn’t distract others. However, this might be difficult to enforce.
Another important point to be drawn is the responsibility of the lecturers to deliver material in an engaging way. An overreliance on technology can work both ways. A monotone lecturer who reads off of a PowerPoint word-for-word is less likely to captivate his or her audience’s attention than one who speaks with enthusiasm and uses slides as a prompt, not as a script.
It should be stated that it’s not only laptop users who can lose interest and cause distraction. Incessant unrelated whispers and giggles can be unpleasant for those who are trying to learn. And this is probably a more common source of distraction.
The premise of my argument can be illustrated by the following joke that I found a while ago somewhere on the internet, which goes something like this: Jack asks Jane ‘If you were to go back in time by one hundred years, what one item would you bring with you, and how would you describe it to the people with whom you met?’ to which Jane replies ‘I would bring a smartphone with me, and I would say ‘I have in the palm of my hand a device so powerful that it gives me instant access to the world’s entire repository of information, and I just use it to look at funny pictures of cats.”
It’s not my intention to pontificate, but I’d encourage students to sign out of Facebook, and to log into life, at least during lectures. Who knows…? You might learn something.
Should laptops be banned in class? Were my points fair? Did you think that my joke was awful? Please share your thoughts in the comments section, below.