February 19, 2009

C.U. Profs Say OK to Laptops in Class

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From updating Facebook statuses to chatting on AIM, wireless Internet provides plenty of opportunities to do anything other than pay attention in class.
Because of the growing number of students bringing laptops to lecture in recent years, many professors across the nation have started banning laptops from their classrooms in order to ensure student participation and discussion.
In 2003, Cornell researchers Prof. Geri Gay, communication, and Helene Hembrooke ’83 conducted a study examining the effects of multi-tasking on a laptop during a lecture. Two groups of students watched the exact same lecture and took a memory test immediately after. One group of students was allowed to use their laptops and browse the Internet during lecture, while the other group was banned from using their laptops. Results showed that multi-tasking on a laptop limited the students’ memory of the lecture, while the group without laptops scored higher on the memory test.
Elina Kagan ’12 does not bring her laptop to class for these reasons, but she admitted that “Sometimes, I even catch myself watching other people on their Facebook or buying clothes online.”
To prevent distractions such as these, several professors and teaching assistants from Yale University have recently banned or discouraged the use of laptops in classrooms, claiming they want students’ active participation and utmost attention. Other universities, such as the University of Chicago, went a step above the “no laptop” policy by banning Internet access in their law classrooms altogether.
Instead of banning wireless Internet altogether, Bentley College provides professors with an on-off switch for wireless Internet. According to many of the instructors at these universities, students learn better when they actively listen and take notes by hand.
As other universities ban laptops and Internet access in classrooms, several professors at Cornell do not believe that these measures will solve typical classroom problems.
“It’s not that much different from years ago when students used to pass notes,” said Prof. Michael McCall, marketing. “People have been passing notes and not paying attention in class since the first class anywhere … they’ve been finding other things to do in class other than paying attention. It’s now just a technology-based activity.”
Prof. Michael Goldstein, psychology, reiterated these thoughts.
“[Banning Internet] is not the answer. If you take away their Internet, they’re just going to find something else to do. I think we just need to find a way to make the lecture more engaging, such as using [iClickers], where I can get a real-time snapshot of what they know,” Goldstein said.
However, not all students use their laptops to ease boredom.
“I feel like I take notes much faster and better on my laptop … it puts me in an active learning mind set, and I’m much more likely to participate than I would if I were taking notes by hand,” said Nicole Offerdahl ’12.
“I hate handwriting,” said John Armstrong ’09, as he scrolled through his PowerPoint lecture notes. “I use my laptop in classes that I have to take a lot of notes in.”
Other students use their laptops for other important purposes besides taking notes. Engineering student Deven Roy ’12 stores e-textbooks in his laptop that he references during lecture.
Moreover, Cornell professors also argue that Internet access may provide valuable real-world resources in class.
Prof. Bruce Rusk, Asian studies, noticed, “whenever I wrote something on the board, students would actually Google what I was talking about and read about it as I’m lecturing.”
Rusk continued by saying that if students were genuinely interested in the topic he was lecturing on, they are provided the opportunity to quickly research the topic and better understand the lecture.
Several Cornell professors agreed that if students are responsible enough to attend lecture, then they should recognize the fact that they are responsible for their own grades. Ultimately, the individual student must decide if they want to take notes or not. Attention cannot be forced or guaranteed in any given lecture with or without the laptops.
Goldstein constantly sees multi-tasking students in his developmental psychology course, but he asserted that it is not his responsibility to make sure every single one of his 150 students is paying attention.
“If I’m relying on them to come to class, I’m relying on them to pay attention as well,” Goldstein said. “It’s not our job to be the parents.”
Prof. David Pizarro, psychology, agreed that responsibility lay in the hands of the individual students.
“If a student really wants to pay attention, then they will,” Pizarro said. “I try to make my lectures as interesting as possible, but at the end of the day, I can’t compete with Facebook.”