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Use of laptops in the classroom proved a surprisingly complex topic at an academic roundtable discussion.

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Laptops in the Classroom? Opinions Diverge

March 13, 2015

MIDDLEBURY – Should students be permitted to use their laptop computers in the classroom?

An academic roundtable of Middlebury students, faculty, and staff opposed any all-campus prohibition on laptops in the classroom, and raised key issues about the needs of students with disabilities and those for whom English is not their first language.

The gathering on March 10 sponsored by the Center for Teaching, Learning and Research (CTLR) also discussed the so-called “nearby-peers effect,” how knowledge can best be gained and retained, and whether the use of personal devices in the classroom affects the quality of higher education.

Three of the four students at the session recommended flexibility on the part of the faculty. For example, they said it might be appropriate to have laptops open in a lecture class of 40 students, but inappropriate in a discussion session with a professor and 10 students. Likewise, it might make sense for students to search quickly for the meanings of words or concepts in the middle of a class, but it makes no sense at all for students to be taking notes on a device when the content includes charts, graphs, or mathematical computations.

The fourth student, Cate Costley ’15, said she finds it distracting when students around her are using laptops in class. “The nearby-peers effect” – a term popularized by Clay Shirky at NYU – “is enough for me to feel like it’s time to shut the laptops.”

Allison Stanger, the Russell Leng professor of political science, finds laptops helpful in teaching search techniques to students, but has been “profoundly affected” by research showing that using devices in class is detrimental to student learning and affects the learning of others around you.

Stanger comes down on the side of student choice. She tells her students what the research shows and recommends they not use their laptops for taking notes in class. She says, “If you have nice handwriting it turns out that you are going to process the material much better if you are writing it out by hand. But if you are one of those people with terrible handwriting like myself, then you should use a laptop.”

Students who use their laptops to surf the web or write e-mails will incur Stanger’s ire. “It’s rude and you are affecting the learning experience of others.” She deems the belief in multitasking “an illusion,” and said students should “focus on what they are doing right now and reward themselves later. In a class if you are not fully 100-percent engaged, then you are wasting an opportunity.”

Professor of Biology Helen Young said she does not favor laptops in her classes because they are distracting (“it’s difficult to resist going to other sites”), and because one study clearly demonstrated “students who take notes by hand learn the material more effectively – both factually and conceptually.” She also expressed that students are more engaged and that the classroom “feels like more of an exchange” without laptops opened.

Recommended reading on the topic: Clay Shirky and David von Schlichten

The students at the roundtable then jumped back into the discussion. David Ollin Pesqueira ’17 asked rhetorically, “Are you in class to learn or are you in class to get a good grade?” because there is a perception among some students that using a laptop to take notes in class will yield a better grade, he said. Phil Bohlman ’17 added, “There are some efficiencies to using a laptop in class, but only for those students who are using the tool correctly.”

Yonna McShane, the director of learning resources at the CTLR, pointed out that “the educational experience belongs to the students,” and the College should allow “students to learn in ways that are best for them.” She pointed out that some students with learning disabilities need their computers in class to take notes, and students from non-English-speaking countries benefit from being able to look up words quickly on their computers.

A professor of English, Timothy Billings, observed that it’s important for faculty to have their laptops-in-class policies written into their syllabi so students will know what’s expected. His general policy is to disallow the use of any wireless technology (i.e., going out onto the Internet, texting, etc.) in class, but he allows students to go online as long as it’s related to the subject matter at hand.

Other faculty and CTLR staff members weighed in during the hour-long discussion with additional points about distractions in the classroom, students’ knowledge (or lack thereof) of search techniques, meeting the needs of students who have e-books instead of paper texts, and the harm that can be done by “outing” students who use their laptops in class for non-academic purposes. One undergraduate said he had a professor who allowed students to use their laptops in class, but only if they sat in the front row.

The academic roundtable was convened by Mike Roy, dean of the library, and James Ralph, the Rehnquist professor of history and dean of faculty development and research.

-- With reporting by Robert Keren