In high school, I loved sitting in the back of the classroom. I could blend in with my overcrowded class and not be the first person my teacher saw every period. There was also the added benefit of being able to lean against the back wall.
Now that I am in college, I must say that sitting anywhere past the middle of the classroom sucks for one big reason: laptops. Sit in the back and you will see dozens of glowing screens before your eyes make it to the professor’s PowerPoint. In lecture, I’ve seen people play Miniclip games, watch LeSean McCoy highlights or fight with a boyfriend over iMessage on their Macbook, all while the professor attempts to discuss Kant’s enlightenment. Picking up your old professor’s trailing voice while trying to tunnel your vision through a concert of bright screens can be seriously difficult.
The laptop is an amazing tool — it sustains our modern economy and education system — but it should have no place in our classrooms. Its presence runs totally counter to some of the most basic habits required for success in the classroom: focus, listening, concentration, communication.
The fact that the laptop is commonplace in other parts of life does not mean that it is of no harm in the classroom. It is a well of distraction in a setting that requires focused thought.
As one of my professors said while explaining his laptop ban, when it comes to the laptop, the professor cannot compete. He or she will lose the attention war. There will always be infinitely more gratification and entertainment on the laptop. Every distracting urge that bubbles up into your mind during lecture and simmers unsatisfied can be fulfilled on the internet, as long as you take your eyes of the professor and let your fingers dance on the keyboard a little bit.
Research quantitatively shows this power of distraction. A series of experiments done by researchers from Princeton University and University of California, Los Angeles, found that students who were randomly assigned laptops understood class material much less than students who took notes with pen and paper. Students don’t receive the full benefit of the lecture when they use a laptop in class.
What moves laptops from being a simple pet peeve to a classroom learning environment issue is that research also shows laptop use in a class affects the academic performance of the whole class.
A study at the United States Military Academy discovered that introductory economics classes that were randomly chosen to allow laptop and tablet use performed substantially worse on the final exam than the laptop-banning classes. Laptop usage affected everyone’s grades.
However, in the event of a laptop ban, there is a very real possibility that students who use laptops for their disabilities would be outed. To avoid this issue, professors should tell their classes that laptops are not allowed, but those who feel they have a solid reason to use one can talk to the professor. Students who are cleared by the University disabilities office should automatically be allowed to use a laptop, and other students who are not cleared, but have convinced the professor with a good reason, could also use a laptop. This way, students won't stick out and expose themselves if they do not feel comfortable doing so.
It is obvious that laptop usage is annoying. Nuance is key, but there is a clear path forward to minimizing the distractions laptops cause.