In Defense of Laptops in the Classroom

Sure, that student may be on Facebook instead of listening to the lecture. But he’s in college—let him make his own mistakes.

Students on Laptops.
You want students to close their machines and pay attention? Put them in a smaller seminar, be engaging, ask them questions.

Courtesy of Shutterstock

In grad school, I was one of dozens of TAs for a 1,000-student freshman lecture course. One morning, as I sat parked amidst the undergrads—a move, it was explained, that maintained order throughout the otherwise-anarchic auditorium—I noticed the student in front of me had her laptop open but was not taking notes. “Pssst,” I hissed at her. “Stop effing around on Facebook and pay attention!” Except I didn’t say “effing.”

Years later, as a professor, I feel embarrassed by that interaction, and not just because I lost my cool and used the F-word to a U-grad. The laptop is now endemic in the modern classroom, with most students using them—purportedly—to take notes and access course materials. Of course, they’re also (often primarily) used to do anything but classwork: games, Snapchat, shopping—even porn. Thus many professors police the ways students use their laptops, and some are banning them outright. But what good does that do? The Laptop Police just seems like one more way of helicoptering students instead of letting them learn how to be students—indeed, how to be adults.

The case for a laptop-free classroom is indeed strong. Last week on The New Yorker’s website, Dartmouth professor Dan Rockmore wrote that he’s banned laptops for years, explaining that “any advantage that might be gained by having a machine at the ready, or available for the primary goal of taking notes, was negligible at best” for his curriculum. What surprised him, though, was that most of his computer science department agreed. No computers in a CompSci class! But, Rockmore argued, research—such as Cornell’s 2003 landmark study “The Laptop and the Lecture” and recent studies out of UCLA and Princeton—shows over and over that students simply learn better when taking notes in old-fashioned chicken scratches.

“The act of typing,” Rockmore says, “effectively turns the note-taker into a transcription zombie, while the imperfect recordings of the pencil-pusher reflect and excite a process of integration.” Even Doonesbury has weighed in on the situation—forget Princeton, if you want unassailable cred with intellectuals, cite Trudeau. Indeed, Rockmore’s article and Trudeau’s comic are actually latecomers to a lengthy laptop debate in academic circles—in addition to the Cornell study, here’s another peer-reviewed study from 2006, that argues that laptops pose “a significant distraction to both users and fellow students,” and impede student performance.

I definitely see the anti-laptop point, but still I say: Let students have ‘em, and not just because banning them now is basically like standing very sternly on the beach, wagging your umbrella at an encroaching tidal wave. (Do you really expect an entire generation that doesn’t learn to write by hand to be able to take notes?) For starters, at many schools, laptops are more affordable for poorer students because they’re covered by financial aid—while requiring students to print out or purchase their course materials can cost them hundreds of dollars per semester, often more than the modest “printing allowance” they’re given.

But even more importantly, policing the (otherwise nondisruptive) behavior of students further infantilizes these 18-to-22-year-olds. Already these students are hand-held through so many steps in the academic process: I check homework; I give quizzes about the syllabus to make sure they’ve actually read it; I walk them, baby-steps style, through every miniscule stage of their essays. Some of these practices do indeed improve what contemporary pedagogy parlance calls “learning outcomes” (barf) because they show students how invested I am in their progress. But these practices also serve as giant, scholastic water wings for people who should really be swimming by now.

My colleagues and I joke sometimes that we teach “13th-graders,” but really, if I confiscate laptops at the door, am I not creating a 13th-grade classroom? Despite their bottle-rocket butt pranks and their 10-foot beer bongs, college students are old enough to vote and go to war. They should be old enough to decide for themselves whether they want to pay attention in class—and to face the consequences if they do not.

I certainly agree that having a laptop open in a large lecture is basically like wearing a sign on your head that says, “I’ll be spending the next hour shopping for shoes, and who are you again?” But that’s not the fault of the laptop; that’s the fault of the lecture format, one of the most impersonal pedagogical delivery methods of all time. You want students to close their machines and pay attention? Put them in a smaller seminar where their presence actually registers and matters, and be engaging enough—or, in my case, ask enough questions cold—that students aren’t tempted to stick their faces in their machines in the first place.

Professors in small seminars can even harness those laptops for good instead of evil: I have regularly planned activities that require students to post the results of their group work online in real time so that we can all discuss them; I have supervised the creation of interactive slideshows that we then all watch together (this also encourages responsible PowerPoint use).

Yes, it is entirely possible that students who lack the self-discipline (or handwriting ability) to look away from the screen and take paper notes will not learn as much, or as well, in college. But that’s their responsibility. What’s going to happen when (if) all these laptop-policed students get jobs? Will their bosses have to disable their Internet? You learn all kinds of things the hard way in college: Hooking up with your hallmate the first week of school is a bad idea. Jägermeister, Goldschläger, and Rumple Minze are not “natural companions” just because they all sound German. Add to those: Spending your econ lecture with Upworthy will tank your GPA. That’s what college is all about.