It’s syllabus day. You’re sitting in a cavernous lecture classroom in White Hall, cramped and uncomfortable but at least moderately excited for the semester ahead. But then, the brilliant lecture takes a turn and your heart drops: the professor doesn’t allow laptops in the room. The loss of your lifeline to the outside world likely isn’t appealing, but in appropriating a scrap of your freedom, your professor has gifted you a powerful advantage.
In the last half-century but particularly since the new millennium began, technology has revolutionized classrooms for students of all ages. The internet allows educators to adapt, inform and complement their teaching dynamically; cell phones enable students to help one another study more effectively than ever before. Laptops, too, have transformed learning in the 21st century — but not necessarily for the better. Given their detrimental effects on students’ learning, Emory professors must move to ban laptop use in lecture-style courses.
The view that laptops can distract college students from learning is neither new nor hard to believe. Access to near-limitless entertainment, media and social networks, for many students, is often an irresistible temptation. For others, saddled with crushing workloads by extracurriculars, academics, research, jobs and more, the opportunity to complete other work often proves still more alluring. In a Michigan State University study conducted by Susan Ravizza, Mitchell Uitvlugt and Kimberly Fenn, students spent a median of about 37 percent of any given lecture using their laptops to browse the internet for non-class-related purposes.
Such distraction can be catastrophic for students’ academic performance. Greater time spent on non-academic internet use during class strongly correlates with lower exam scores, even when controlling for students’ intelligence, interest in the course and work ethic. In other words, no matter how gifted or motivated a student may be, the internet-based distractions enabled by laptops will harm their grades.
The problems with laptops extend beyond even social media and internet distractions. Laptops’ most common use in college classrooms, as reported by students themselves, is note-taking. At first glance, they would seem to be a boon in that department, allowing those with bad penmanship to take legible notes and enabling all students to record more information from lectures than ever before.
But even when laptops are used solely for taking notes, a growing body of research suggests that they impair learning in lecture settings. By handwriting them, students devote more time to processing the information they receive, parse it for key concepts and unfamiliar ideas and summarize the results. Laptops, on the other hand, enable students to merely transcribe professors’ words verbatim with minimal processing or dissection involved. When they take written notes, students become learners. When they use laptops, they become secretaries.
Many proponents of laptop use argue, however, that banning them would hurt many students who use them to supplement their understanding of the lecture. The idea that students rely on laptops to access syllabi, presentations and texts is at first glance a reasonable one, but the data doesn’t back this up. The Michigan State researchers in fact found that students spent less than 5 percent of any given lecture using their laptops for course-related purposes.
To be sure, laptops are not without their academic benefits. In some lecture settings, they often prove effective in administering quizzes and exams, and labs and programming-based courses would of course become nearly impossible without them. Laptops may also greatly enhance small, discussion-based classes, in that they can facilitate discourse by providing near-limitless access to background information and contextual knowledge. Such seminar-style courses depend on electronic texts, whether online or offline, in ways that lectures don’t. In all of those scenarios, laptops’ crucial roles in students learning justify their continued use.
Most importantly, as Emory Wheel opinion writer Naomi Keusch Baker (20C) highlighted in a 2019 op-ed, some students with disabilities require laptops to take notes. While accommodations arranged with professors in such cases may make one or both parties temporarily uncomfortable, educators’ duty, first and foremost, is to foster classroom environments conducive to all students’ learning. Being the only laptop users in sight could out such students as disabled and result in a regrettable degree of discomfort, but resolving those murky drawbacks would impose an unjustifiable negative externality on their classmates’ academic experience. By allowing students for whom laptops are a necessity to use them and prohibiting them otherwise, professors would rightly prioritize superior learning outcomes for the entire class.
But at the end of the day, we are adults. We have both the power and the responsibility to make our own choices and learn from the results. Coming to grips with that reality is an integral part of the college experience, so removing students’ opportunity to do so by banning laptops in classrooms would seem to be a detriment to their growth and thus an unfair denial of freedom. One exceptional student may not need to pay attention in a particular lecture, and another may have pressing work to complete for another class, and in a vacuum, for them to hinder their learning in that lecture by using their laptops is their prerogative. But college is not such a vacuum. A great deal of scholarship suggests that laptop use in lectures, for whatever purpose, harms not only their users, but also their peers nearby. We, as mature students, have the right to make poor choices of our own, but not to make such choices for our peers. When our mistakes harm others as well as ourselves, our hard-learned lessons don’t just become unethical. They become parasitic.
Neither the data nor the ethics lie: laptops in most lecture courses harm both their users and many others. Our professors, as facilitators of our learning, have a duty to make the hard choice and, in that specific context, ban them. It’s time to close the lids and open our eyes.
Ben Thomas (23C) is from Dayton, Ohio.