The Case Against Laptops in the Classroom

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Two university students studying
Photo: Frederick Bass

Last week, at the Aspen Ideas festival, there came an interesting little moment between Kentaro Toyama, a computer scientist, and Jim Steyer, a lawyer and entrepreneur. Both declared that they’d banned laptops and other electronic devices in their lecture halls.

Many of the students actually appreciate that,” said Toyama, who teaches at the University of Michigan, “because it encourages real discussion, and they know that as soon as there’s a laptop in front of them, they’re going to start Facebooking each other, and that means that they’re not present for the class.”

Steyer jumped right in. “You should know that in my Stanford classes five years ago, I started banning laptops,” he said. “There was no way they were paying attention. They all whined about it constantly for the first three weeks.” He added that his colleague, with whom he co-taught the course, was terrified they’d made the wrong choice. “She was like, They’re gonna just kill us on the reviews!” he said. But by the end, their students, too, expressed gratitude.

As the founder of Common Sense Media, which evaluates the relative merits of kiddie screen fare, Steyer would perhaps inevitably come around to this point of view – he knows a thing or two about kids and distraction. Ditto for Toyama, author of Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology, whose misgivings about the Internet are built right into the title. Both are wary of mindless tech boosterism and obviously willing to say so out loud.

But they may also represent a new kind of logic when it comes to electronics and education, suggesting that more professors are willing to rethink the value of these devices – or at least express their reservations aloud. Not that many years ago, it would have been considered curmudgeonly – hostile to progress, even – for teachers to voice concerns about laptops and iPhones. Yes, there were early un-adopters (the University of Chicago Law School, for instance, turned off its WiFi in classrooms in 2008) and vaudevillian dissenters (like the University of Oklahoma physics professor who, in 2010, braised a laptop in a bucket of liquid nitrogen and then smashed it on the ground – watch the clip here for a quick hit of Luddite porn). But they were outliers, mainly.

Last year, though, no less than Clay Shirky, the Internet philosopher whose views on new technology have always tended toward the enthusiastic, wrote an essay for Medium explaining why he, too, had reluctantly decided to banish smartphones and laptops from his NYU classroom. “Both the form and the content of a Facebook update are almost irresistibly distracting,” he wrote, “especially compared with the hard slog of coursework. (“Your former lover tagged a photo you are in” vs. “The Crimean War was the first conflict significantly affected by use of the telegraph.” Spot the difference?)”

Attention researchers have long known that we humans are lousy at task-switching. Our brains simply aren’t optimized for it. Slaloming between two streams of information almost guarantees that our learning will be shallower; it prevents us from making intelligent and lasting associations with either body of material. In the case of a distracted college student, one of those bodies of material – a Facebook feed, say – isn’t important to master in the first place. Yet as Shirky points out, social media software is hypnotically diverting, like a tropical bird in mating season – noisy, seductive, colorfully-plumed. How could a bored undergraduate resist? (“Our visual and emotional systems are faster and more powerful than our intellect,” he notes.) Indeed, how could nearby students resist? (This, to Shirky, is the most powerful argument for banning laptops: They’re diverting other students in the vicinity: “Allowing laptop use in class,” he wrote, “is like allowing boombox use in class .”)

In the last few years, a number of studies have also shown, quite convincingly, that students learn better – and get better grades – when they take notes by hand. (My favorite: “The Pen is Mightier than the Keyboard.”) The reason, quite simply, is that typing leads to a certain compulsivity about getting the words just right, a slavish attachment to literal transcription; whereas writing, which is slower, forces people to process and summarize the ideas they’re hearing.

In fact, studies examining the efficacy of laptops in the classroom date back to 2003, when a pair of researchers from Cornell gave two groups of students – one with open laptops, one with closed – the identical lecture and then tested them on the material immediately afterwards. Guess which group did better. (Dan Rockmore, a professor of computer science at Dartmouth, discussed both of these studies in his own essay for the New Yorker last year about why he, too, banned laptops from his classroom; they’ve formed the basis for many teachers’ objections.).

Steyer, of Common Sense Media, recognized this immediately. “And then they’d protest, ‘But I take notes on my laptop!’” he told me after his panel. “And then I’d say, ‘Oooooooh, you don’t know how to write? You’re a Stanford student. I assume you took penmanship.’”

Today, he says, far more of his colleagues are banning laptops than they did five years ago. His own rhetoric, meanwhile, remains gleefully strict. “I tell my students that if I catch them, I’m going to take away their computer or phone for 24 hours,” he says, “which I of course don’t have the right to do.”