February 25, 2016

Cornell Faculty Explain Changes to In-Class Laptop Policies

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Cornell faculty have begun cracking down on extraneous laptop use in class.

While opinions on the benefits of laptop use in classrooms vary among faculty members, there has been a growing trend toward a more stringent regulation of the practice.

Prof. Robert Thorne, physics, said he started experimenting with different laptop policies about four years ago. After implementing a strict no-laptop policy, Thorne ultimately settled on a more lenient arrangement where students with laptops are only allowed to sit in the back two rows.

“I understand that students might have a paper due or have to meet some deadline but don’t want to miss lecture,” Thorne said. “I don’t ask the reasons, but my policy is if you’re in the back two rows, you can do what you want.”

Thorne said his primary problem with laptop use in his classroom is not necessarily out of concern for students’ decreased ability in focusing on the material, but rather the negative externality of disturbing neighboring students.

“In the late 2000s, I would sit it on lectures and notice a lot of people with their laptops open, watching videos or doing other things that weren’t related to the lecture,” Thorne said. “You see this happen in the professional world as well, at conferences and seminars, people checking their e-mails, working on their talk or other things. It’s extremely distracting.”

Senior lecturer Dr. Anne Bracy, computer science, also mentioned the inherently distracting nature of electronic devices within a classroom environment.

“I do generally think that laptops tend to distract, first of all, the students that are using the laptop, and most definitely the people sitting around the person with the laptop,” Bracy said.

Bracy said she usually prefers an airplane-mode policy, but due to the size of her CS 3410: Computer System Organization and Programming course, she said she implemented a no-laptop policy.

Bracy observed that her students were sitting too close to one another to be able to use their laptops productively.
While she is open to exploring different options of laptop use regulation, Bracy said she is uncompromising when it comes to cell phone use in her class.

“I have a strict no-cell phone policy. Cell phones distract me,” Bracy said. “When I am teaching, sometimes I can see people using their phones. … I can see them reading something, laughing a little bit. Students don’t realize how it actually really throws off the professor.”

In 2003, Prof. Geri Gay, communications, co-authored a paper on the effects of laptop use on classroom environment that addresses the inherently distracting nature of electronic devices.

“We learned that if students scanned online and stayed at a superficial level, they still did well on the recall and retention tests about the recent lecture,” Gay said. “But if they became more engaged online — reading an article, writing to friends about the weekend — they did not do well on the test about the lecture.”

Thorne, Bracy and a growing number of Cornell faculty are interested in how classroom environment will be further affected by the growing prevalence of laptop and electronic device use.

“The evidence is that people just can’t multitask. These devices and their apps have been designed to suck us in,” Thorne said. “Maybe we’ll evolve as a culture over time. Maybe students will be able to focus more, and become less easily distracted. We’ve only been living with this technology for about 10 years, so you never know.”

Gay said that she also sees an opportunity in the future for professors to integrate technology to improve learning environments.

“I have seen successful examples where professors encourage students to comment on readings on blogs and projecting those comments during classes … [by] linking to articles, examples and interactive activities rather than passively listening,” she said.