Laptop Use in Classroom: Should Students Sign In or Log Off?

BOSTON – Marcus Garrant surfs the web in class – and he is not alone.

A 2006 study by Dr. Carrie Fried, a psychology professor of Winona State University, examined students who were required to have access to a laptop in class. Although 83 percent of students said they used their computers to take notes, nearly 45 percent reported surfing the Internet instead.

On average, respondents said they spent 17 minutes out of the 75-minute class doing something other than taking notes. Fried concluded more laptop use in class correlated with lower classroom performance.

“I don’t think it hurts my education,” said Garrant, freshman at Boston University.

Laptops are an integral part of college in the 21st century. The average American college classroom is a sea of students and computers. At any given moment during a lecture, students can be distracted by the Internet, instant messaging, email, and other computer applications, instead of paying attention and taking notes. Laptop use can either help or harm students, depending on how technology is used in the classroom.

Those recently interviewed at BU weighed in on the benefits and drawbacks of computers in classrooms. While Garrant likes to use his laptop in class, other students reported that their attention wavered when they saw students surfing the web.

Colby Rymes, a sophomore at BU, has witnessed students doing something other than taking notes.

“It’s frustrating because professors can’t see what’s on laptops,” she said.

Professors are aware of the widespread distraction that laptops cause. Professor Scott Thompson, director of the BU’s screenwriting program, said that laptops are his biggest competition in lecture-style classes. Thompson allows laptops in classes with fewer than 15 students but bans technology for larger classes.

“They can take a break from technology for two hours,” he said.

Professor Stephanie Nelson, assistant dean and director of Core Curriculum at BU, said that she bans laptops in her classrooms because of the temptation students face to surf online. In a discussion-style class, she wants students to speak up because they are individuals with unique and original ideas. But with laptops, students’ eyes are drawn to their screens, even if they aren’t on Facebook.

Nelson said that she was persuaded by an experiment that studied how well students could remember content when notes were taken on laptops or in notebooks.

Research earlier this year by Pam Mueller of Princeton University and Daniel Oppenheimer of the University of California, Los Angeles showed that even with more thorough notes, those who took notes on laptops scored lower on tests than those who took notes longhand. Because the laptop users did not have to interact with the information, they tested worse both in factual content and conceptual understanding.

Students who type fast enough are simply transcribing the information, but by hand they must process it.

“The physical, kinesthetic act of writing it down helps,” Nelson said.

Julie Whiting, a sophomore at BU, agrees that taking notes by hand helps her understand.

“I’m not really that good with technology,” she said. “[By hand] is simpler and writing manually makes me think about it more.”

If she were on a computer, she would probably end up on Facebook and waste all her time, she said.

One professor at BU embraced the inevitable Facebook usage and made it part of her class.

Professor Theodora Goss, a senior lecturer for BU’s Writing Program, created Facebook groups for her classes and encourages students to access the groups in class. She said she used to use email to communicate but switched to Facebook groups instead.

With the group, students can communicate with her as well as peers. This is helpful when they have a question at 3 a.m. when she is likely asleep, but the average college student with a paper due the next day might not be.

Goss recognizes the dilemma of allowing computers in class.

“The question is,” she said, “if we have this technology, what is the best way to integrate it into the classroom?”

Some studies say students benefit when technology is used in the classroom in a constructive way. A study earlier this year by the Teaching Center Journal revealed that integration of laptop use into the curriculum can help a student’s attention and learning.

In the study, students had to use a computer program that corresponded to the class. Those who used it reported higher levels of engagement and learning than students whose teachers did not work laptops into their lectures. Over 50 percent of the students who used the program said that their laptop helped them learn more.

With studies that back either side of the argument, the issue is far from clear. Goss, pro-laptops, said she has seen students with content on their laptops that isn’t class related. Nelson, anti-laptops, understands that students benefit from being able to pull up Powerpoint Presentations to follow along or go back for missed information.

Garrant, who surfs the Internet during class, also uses it to look up terms he doesn’t know in lecture. He sees both sides and said technology should be used at the student’s discretion.

“I don’t think [laptops] should be banned in class,” he said. “It should be the student’s choice.”

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