I settled on my New Year’s resolution while giving a lecture to 85 masters students.
It was one kid who unintentionally suggested the idea. He was sitting in the back row, silently pecking away at his laptop the entire class. At times, he smiled at his screen. But he rarely looked up at me.
I had a choice. I could disrupt the class to single him out. Or I could do what most teachers in higher education do: just ignore it. After all, these students are adults, and they have to take a final exam. Do I have to be the disciplinarian?
When I was a student myself — not that long ago — no one brought laptops to class. I took notes on legal pads, and the remains of those legal pads are still filed away in my office. Today, few students take notes by hand.
Since most students can type very quickly, laptops encourage them to copy down nearly everything said in the classroom. But when students stare at the screen of their laptops, something is lost. The students shift from being intellectuals, listening to one another, to being customer-service representatives, taking down orders. Class is supposed to be a conversation, not an exercise in dictation.
This is not just vague worrying on my part. There’s now good research on the topic. Take, for instance, a recent study by two psychologists, Pam Mueller at Princeton University and Daniel Oppenheimer at UCLA. Mueller and Oppenheimer asked 67 undergraduates to watch videos of lectures. Half the students were randomly assigned to watch the lectures while taking notes on a laptop, while the other students were asked to watch the lectures while taking notes with paper and pen. Afterward, the students were all given an exam. The students who took notes longhand scored much higher on conceptual questions than did the students who used a laptop.
Clay Shirky, a professor at New York Univeristy, recently asked his students to stop using laptops in class. Another recent study convinced him to do so. The title: “Laptop multitasking hinders classroom learning for both users and nearby peers.” A research team in Canada found that laptops in the classroom distracted not only the students who used them, but also students who sat nearby. Meaning, not only do the laptop-using students end up staring at Facebook, but the students behind them do, as well.
Both of those research studies suggest that, in the classroom, laptops actually hinder learning. And you don’t need a randomized-controlled study to know that. It’s just hard to focus in front of a laptop. (I checked Twitter twice before finishing that sentence.) Everyone struggles to focus when the Internet is only a click away. So why bring that distraction into the classroom?
Granted, laptops have their advantages. A laptop can be securely backed up more easily than a notebook. A laptop allows students — especially those for whom English is a second language — to look up words and background on the fly. But such benefits are surely overwhelmed by the enormous gravitational tug of Facebook and e-mail.
And so I’m left with a resolution for the new year: no more electronics in class. On the first day, I’ll describe the research that’s been done, and I’ll ask the students to put away their laptops and their cellphones. Some students might grumble, but they’ll be better off for it.
I’m not a Luddite. Without computers, I couldn’t do my own research. I spend all day in front of a computer. But the enormous, world-changing benefits of computers have to be weighed against the costs. We are becoming a distracted nation, constantly alt-tabbing to our e-mail and peeking at our phones. We should not be so quick to throw out our pens and pencils.