After Student Assembly passed Resolution 19 in its  meeting on Thursday, students and professors discuss the role technology plays in the classroom.

Michael Weyne Li / Sun Staff Photographer

After Student Assembly passed Resolution 19 in its meeting on Thursday, students and professors discuss the role technology plays in the classroom.

February 22, 2017

Free the Laptop: Students, Faculty Deliberate Over Technology Policies in Classrooms

Print More

While pen and paper used to be the norm in a lecture hall, Student Assembly argues that laptops are now the necessary instruments for effective learning  to the dismay of some professors, students and teaching assistants alike.

During last week’s meeting, S.A. passed Resolution 19, “Recommending Uniformity in Faculty Laptop Policies,” sponsored by Assemblymember Noah Chovanec ’18.

The resolution calls for “professors and instructors, especially in the humanities and social sciences” to “allow students to use laptops in lectures and discussion sections where note-taking is necessary and/or the reading materials can be accessed online.”

Chovanec explained why he chose to support the resolution, even as a student who does not regularly use his laptop.

“I don’t believe that a student should be forbidden from using a laptop to take notes in class, provided they are not using their laptops for other purposes, potentially distracting other students,” Chovanec said. “As someone who usually doesn’t use my laptop for note-taking, I still see the value in it.”

S.A. president Jordan Berger ’17 also expressed strong support, drawing from her own experience where laptop policies could restrict her scheduling choices.

“Uniformity in faculty laptop policies is important because students shouldn’t have to decide what class to take based upon the rules that professors make for the classroom,” she added. “As a student with a disability, no-technology policies in classrooms make me cringe.”

However, not all members of the community are in agreement, as the resolution drew mixed responses from students, professors and teaching assistants.

“I believe that students should be granted the autonomy to make their own decision regarding laptop usage,” said Liam Foley ’19. “Laptop usage enables me to conduct my own research on the topic and thus, be more engaged in the conversation.”

Opposing S.A. members, Abigail Prisloe ’18 argued against laptop autonomy, especially in classrooms with more students.

“When I have to physically take notes, it makes more connections in my brain.”” Prisloe said. “I think laptops should be banned in any class that’s not large. It’s a huge distraction. There’s a lot of multitasking being done.”

While taking notes by hand is crucial to Prisloe’s learning style, some students suggested that their different learning styles reflect their decision whether to use technology in classrooms.

“Each student has a different way of understanding and keeping track of the material. It may be necessary for professors to allow students to individually assess whether it’s right for them,” said Aneil Gill ’20.

Teaching assistants and professors said that laptops are usually banned in class because they can be a distraction and may limit interactions between students.

Prof. Maria Theresa Savella, Asian studies, explained that laptop usage is often dependent on the subject area in class.

“I teach language classes and we need more interaction so laptops are usually not allowed,” Savella said. “It depends on the nature of the assignment whether I allow laptops or not. If it’s PowerPoint presentations or watching videos online, then obviously, students can use their laptops.”

Jordan Jochim grad, a teaching assistant, argued that discussion-style classrooms are not conducive to laptop use.

“In the context of a section discussion, I think [laptops] tend to hurt more than help. I want students to spend more time digesting and responding to others’ comments than transcribing them,” Jochim said.

“I prefer students to keep their laptops put away during section. Since I want to promote an active discussion my concern is that they may serve as a distraction,” Jochim added.

Other professors are more adamant in allowing the use of laptops in both section and lectures.

“I never ban laptops,” said Prof. John Weiss, history. “It helps students and I have no problem with it in section as long as it does not inhibit crosstalk. If you ban them, it seems to me you are obliged to somehow record the lectures.”

Acknowledging that laptops can be “distracting,” Chovanec recommends that faculty members employ methods such as “enforcing ‘no-internet’ policies or monitor laptop usage to make sure students aren’t using their laptops to browse the web, watch videos, play games, etc. in class.”

“We see this resolution simply as a conversation starter. We want faculty to take a step back and think about how accessible their classes are to students,” Chovanec said. “How can we strike a balance between effective note taking and a distraction-free learning environment?”

  • D. Westoby

    For courses where you take text-based notes, laptops can be helpful, and the decision should be at least on the table. Most students these days can type faster than they write by hand. I would concur that a ‘no internet’ policy is not a bad idea, but hard to implement/enforce (Cornell would have to have classrooms where Red Rover and the like were inaccessible — possible, but difficult).

    One the other hand, for highly technical classes (lots of equations on the board, for example), makes no sense at all. I have several profs in that sort of class who ban laptops, for the obvious reason that since you can’t write out the equations on the computer at the speed with which they come and go on the board, then laptops have no utility (and, they pretty well assume — correctly — that if you have your laptop open, you’re not doing anything related to the class). Most such classes are also not ‘interaction/dialog classes’, so again, computers have little purpose — unless they’re being used jointly as part of a classroom exercise.

    In my experience, and awful lot of computer use in classrooms has absolutely nothing to do with taking notes, or anything related to the class. Prove this for yourself. Take some big lecture class (especially a non-science class), and stand at the back of the room. Count the number of laptops looking at eBay, or Facebook, or some such. Many -> most of them. So, allow them, but only if controlled, and/or by permission (I have one prof who says you can use them, but you need to provide a written justification. And the deal is, if you’re found out to be using them for non-class activities, you’re banned from using them for anything…).

  • The Elephant In The Room

    You can’t take away everyone’s phones (unless you really want to get draconian), so the whole distraction argument doesn’t hold water. Also, I can type in LaTeX faster than I can write out equations by hand and actually understand it later, so STEM classes shouldn’t be an exception.

    If you’re responsible enough to take out loans to pay over a quarter of a million dollars when you have a net worth of zero to get a bachelor’s degree that doesn’t necessarily lead to a super high income, you should be responsible enough able to do whatever you damn well please with class time so long as:

    1) you’re not cheating on anything and
    2) you’re not distracting or bothering the rest of the class.

    If you screw around on the internet instead of paying attention, there are two possible scenarios, both of which should be allowed:

    1) you don’t learn anything and fail. Time to grow up and be an adult without people forcing you to do everything.
    2) The professor is useless but you’re required to go anyway. You learn the material in spite of an inept professor not doing their job and simply make the most of the class time you’re forced to waste listening to the professor’s drivel.

    Judging by the number of students who fail classes, I think the real problem is #2, not #1. Until we expect professors to be competent at teaching, everything else is a moot point. It’s not like if you take away everybody’s electronics that they’ll suddenly be engaged if the professor is isn’t helping them learn the material.