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The Great Laptop Debate

It would be hard to imagine our lives without the cornucopia of technologies so many students constantly have on hand: laptops, iPhones, iPads and so forth. No matter where you go on campus, you are likely to see the majority of students with their laptops out, either doing readings and assignments, watching Netflix, or creeping on Facebook. The only spaces where one could incidentally not see an ocean of glowing apples is in a classroom, depending on the professor.

In movie and TV versions of college, everyone is taking notes on their laptops in every class, however, at BC, the presence of computers in classrooms is much more varied and debated. There seem to be three stances BC professors take—against laptops, for laptops, or indifferent—with the "for laptops" and "indifferent" positions often merging together to form an attitude of "to each his own." And although students all enjoy the liberty to check Facebook or online shop during boring lectures, each policy has its advantages and disadvantages.

On the side that approves of laptop use, some professors merely allow the presence of a computer in their classroom, while others incorporate use of said technology into the lesson plan. According to Emmy Paulson, CSOM '19, her Computers and Management professor Allen Li works the use of the site polleverything.com into his classes for asking questions about the homework, or asking for and comparing opinions in the classroom.

Another professor, Madeline Campbell of the Romance Languages Department, allows occasional Internet use to quiz students using the game-like site kahoot.it, but does not allow laptops to be out constantly.

Dr. Matt Sienkiewicz of the Communications Department encourages an even more extensive use of technology in the classroom. In his class Online Communication and Global Society, Sienkiewicz encourages students to use Twitter both inside and outside of the classroom to garner participation points and occasionally win prizes.

He says that he “acknowledges the ways that technology is becoming part of our society,” and is choosing to embrace that. Incorporating Twitter into his lesson plan is for him, a way to show students resources they didn’t even realize they had available to them. “Twitter is a source of entertainment, but it can also be a great way to make connections and can serve as an educational tool," he says. "I want to show students that it can have more than one purpose in their life.”

Sienkiewicz also believes that Twitter can help adjust for the “bubble nature of college” by connecting students with people and ideas from around the world.

As for the classically cited disadvantages of having computers out during class, Sienkiewicz labels himself as “laissez-faire.” In his view, students can decide for themselves what medium works best for their note-taking. He acknowledges that there is no doubt some students will be on Facebook during his lectures, but ultimately, it is that student’s decision as to how they want to focus their attention.

He says that as a professor, he views it as his job to make his lectures both interesting and necessary for success in the course, and after that, it is up to the student. Students tend to agree with this notion of “to each his own.” Jen Howard, MCAS '19 says that although laptops are allowed in all her classes, she opts to take notes in notebooks. She elaborates that she knows other students have their computers out, making them able to check their iMessage, Facebook, and anything else while in lectures, and while Jen recognizes that she has that choice available, she typically prefers sticking to the old-school note-taking.

On the other side of the spectrum, Professor Dennis Hale of the Political Science Department does not allow laptop use—save for disabilities—in his classes. Rather than being concerned with the distraction of a laptop for the student juggling his notes and Facebook—as he acknowledges this is a reality of life with today’s technology—he is concerned for the long-term gaps in crucial education skills that he believes having a laptop in a lecture contributes to.

Hale says that he banned laptops in his lectures about five years ago, but before he did so he noticed that attentive students taking notes on their laptops would be clicking away, typing what he was lecturing, verbatim, for the entire class period. Then, after taking computers away, he’s begun to notice that many of his students take no notes at all.

His takeaway? Hale believes that using laptops has eroded students’ note-taking skills. “They no longer know how to listen and simply jot down what is important or interesting,” he says, and they can’t distinguish between “what is important and illustrious."

Hale also believes that having a laptop does little to contribute to a book-centric course, such as a political science course. Being able to break down books and ideas, discuss them, and pull out what is important in them is not helped by having a room full of laptops staring back at you, as opposed to a room of students.

He puts it this way: If you were in the middle of a conversation with a friend, or were on a date, and the other person pulled out a computer and started documenting the conversation, it would be an uncomfortable experience. He finds that courses focused on books are discussion-based, and having students typing his musings word for word does not contribute to meaningful, or even comfortable discussions.

Several students are in agreement with Hale on this point. Caitlin Ferris and Emmy Paulson, both CSOM '19, find that having and using their laptops during business classes is logical and helpful; as Emmy puts it, you are actively learning “marketable skills,” and it is a field where computer use will be constant. However Ferris finds that in non-CSOM classes, such as Perspectives, or Theater classes, she doesn’t see a need for her laptop, and like Hale observes, it can sometimes be a barrier. In those discussion-heavy classes, she feels like being fully immersed in the conversation and having a pen and paper out for notes are what allows her to take full advantage of the material.

Students, like professors, can see both the benefits and disadvantages of laptops, and as with professors, views vary greatly from person to person. One student who has dyslexia finds that he prefers classes in which laptops are always an option, because he personally has a much easier time in class when he has resources such as spell check, but feels uncomfortable when he is the only one allowed to have his computer out.

On a completely different foot, Paulson thinks having her laptop out is important because in a world where we are expected to be constantly available, she likes having the option of taking two minutes away from note-taking to answer a pressing email and not ending up with complications resulting from not having seen it in a timely fashion.

For the moment, at least, it seems classroom laptop policies will continue to vary just as much as the stickers that plaster their aluminum shells.

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