TaxProf Blog

Editor: Paul L. Caron, Dean
Pepperdine University School of Law

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

NY Times: Laptops Are Great. But Not During A Lecture Or A Meeting.

MacbookNew York Times op-ed:  Laptops Are Great. But Not During a Lecture or a Meeting., by Susan Dynarski (Michigan):

Step into any college lecture hall and you are likely to find a sea of students typing away at open, glowing laptops as the professor speaks. But you won’t see that when I’m teaching.

Though I make a few exceptions, I generally ban electronics, including laptops, in my classes and research seminars.

That may seem extreme. After all, with laptops, students can, in some ways, absorb more from lectures than they can with just paper and pen. They can download course readings, look up unfamiliar concepts on the fly and create an accurate, well-organized record of the lecture material. All of that is good.

But a growing body of evidence shows that over all, college students learn less when they use computers or tablets during lectures. They also tend to earn worse grades. The research is unequivocal: Laptops distract from learning, both for users and for those around them. ...

In a series of experiments at Princeton University and the University of California, Los Angeles, students were randomly assigned either laptops or pen and paper for note-taking at a lecture. Those who had used laptops had substantially worse understanding of the lecture, as measured by a standardized test, than those who did not.

The researchers hypothesized that, because students can type faster than they can write, the lecturer’s words flowed right to the students’ typing fingers without stopping in their brains for substantive processing. Students writing by hand had to process and condense the spoken material simply to enable their pens to keep up with the lecture. Indeed, the notes of the laptop users more closely resembled transcripts than lecture summaries. The handwritten versions were more succinct but included the salient issues discussed in the lecture.

Even so, it may seem heavy-handed to ban electronics in the classroom. Most college students are legal adults who can serve in the armed forces, vote and own property. Why shouldn’t they decide themselves whether to use a laptop?

The strongest argument against allowing that choice is that one student’s use of a laptop harms the learning of students around them. ...

The best evidence available now suggests that students should avoid laptops during lectures and just pick up their pens. It’s not a leap to think that the same holds for middle and high school classrooms, as well as for workplace meetings.

Chronicle of Higher Education, Should Laptops Be Banned in Class? An Op-Ed Fires Up the Debate:

Is there anything more painful to a professor than discovering half her students have been lost to shoe-shopping and Snapchat? The distraction of technology is a major driver of electronics bans in classrooms. But other academics are equally adamant that technology can be a force for good, or at least that professors have no right to tell students what they can and can’t use in class.

That long-simmering debate flared up last week in response to a New York Times op-ed by Susan Dynarski, a professor of education, public policy, and economics at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Ms. Dynarski, who bans electronics in her classes and seminars, wrote that “a growing body of evidence shows that, over all, college students learn less when they use computers or tablets during lectures. They also tend to earn worse grades. The research is unequivocal: Laptops distract from learning, both for users and for those around them.”

Inside Higher Ed, Why I’m Not a Fan of Laptop Bans:

[T]he whole idea of banning them doesn’t quite sit right with me.

To be fair, Dynarski stipulates that the ban is her own, and not her university’s. That helps. And she makes an exception for disability-related accommodations. I’m not sure how that avoids shining a light on a few students, but for the sake of argument, I’m willing to accept that certain kinds of exceptions can be granted without compromising confidentiality. And I’ll assume that laptops and other tech would be permitted in classes in which their use is part of the subject matter. A tech-free computer science class just doesn’t seem plausible.

But I’m still uneasy, and not only because my handwriting is terrible. Which it is. ...

I have no issue at all with professors advising students upfront about the benefits of handwriting their notes, or with banning irrelevant use. I don’t even have an issue with professors relegating laptop users to the back row, in order to get around the “secondhand smoke” argument. (A screen I can’t see isn’t terribly distracting.) But there’s a meaningful difference between “I don’t recommend using laptops” and “laptops are banned.”

We don’t get to veto the future. Tech is part of the world for which we need to prepare students. Good or bad, it simply is. Rather than trying to reverse time’s arrow, I’d rather we devote our attention to finding more effective ways to use tech. We need to stop filming plays, and start making movies.

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I have posted a notice in my syllabus and made mention of this in our first class. But they seem to forget....and eventually many students open up. Sometimes I don't have time to be the policeman..... But I loved your article and plan on making enforcement a higher priority next semester.

Posted by: Charles Goodman | Nov 29, 2017 6:50:39 AM

Laptop's are bad in work meetings says life long academic - riiiiiigggghttttt

Posted by: taxtaxtax | Nov 29, 2017 12:41:35 PM

If you expect people to listen, why not record the talk so they can play it back to pick up those points they missed?

Posted by: Dale Spradling | Nov 30, 2017 5:41:11 AM

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