In high school, I sat on the School Advisory Council during a particularly momentous era of debate. It was one of those times when you could sense a historic shift in attitude: societal norms were changing, and I felt proud to be involved in that turning point. My antiquated high school was entering the digital age by allowing students to use their cell phones and laptops in class for academic purposes. How silly the administrators were to even question the natural progression of history in the first place! We had built a wind turbine behind the gym to harness wind power, so why not harness this other technology we already used for most of our lives to aid us in the classroom?
After a few years of progressive technology use later, it’s funny to look back on how naively optimistic I was. In-class laptop use is now the bane of my existence.
I tried using a computer to type notes a few times when I got to college but found my WPM (words per minute) rate to be lackluster. A crazy scribbling technique on real paper works best for me, so I’ve stuck with the good ole longhand method. And, as multiple studies have shown, students who take notes on paper remember more of the lecture because they’re forced to internalize the material and pick and choose the important elements—ain’t nobody got time to write down everything verbatim.
While I stand by those statistics, it doesn’t bother me if my laptop-wielding classmates think that shorthand note taking is more productive than longhand. What does bother me is the ubiquity of computers in class, the same thing I thought was a grand idea a few years ago. Trying to focus on the professor with a bunch of computers directly below eye level is about as distracting as trying to have a conversation while walking through Times Square.
In most of my classes this year, almost every person used a laptop, a significant boost from past semesters. I look around the classroom nowadays and acknowledge that I’m in the minority. I also notice that the majority of laptop users are consistently out of touch with the lecture: eyes down, typing incessantly when there’s no reason to be typing. Facebook, iMessage, Buzzfeed, online shopping–it’s all going on around me, and I’ve stopped resisting the temptation to snoop. The other week, I realized that I had learned more about one student’s relationship with her boyfriend than the topic the professor was teaching.
It’s even worse during discussion-based classes. A professor asks a question, and students’ eyes dart toward their screens like the answer is written across it. Actually, people often do look up information. A benefit to having a computer with you is that you can google questions to help supplement the lecture. That seems pretty helpful, and I don’t have any qualms with that. Unfortunately, people take advantage of that ability and use the class time to do other homework.
The last week of classes, I got so frustrated with everyone else working on homework during class that I surrendered the battle. I brought my computer in, pulled up an essay I was working on for another class, and went at it. I felt like a delinquent, and then I looked around and saw that everyone else was tuned out doing the same thing. I still felt like a bum. By no means am I a perfect student otherwise. I check my cell phone fairly often in the lull moments of class, yet the difference between checking a phone and having a laptop screen in front of you during the entire lecture is significant. Even in my most riveting classes, students throw their money and minds away by wasting time scrolling through Facebook.
Every so often, an admirable, not-going-to-put-up-with-your-BS professor decides to ban computers from class. One of my professors did exactly that this year, making the class discussions significantly livelier. Everyone joined in, and we all learned a lot from each other. I’d like to see more professors instituting a no-laptop rule, or better yet, see students choose to pick up a pen of their own accord. A technology that should enhance the learning process has become a distraction from it.
Managing editor. Lover of history and all things 1960s. Lives by the lessons of The Rocky Horror Picture Show: "Don't dream it, be it."