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I was a university student from the year 2000 until the year 2015, first as an undergraduate and then as a graduate student.  During that decade and a half, I witnessed a rise and fall of laptop use in the classroom.  In the early 2000s laptops in the classroom were a novelty.  By the mid-to-late 2000s, laptops in the classroom were ubiquitous.  But then, to my surprise, in the early 2010s, laptops started to disappear.  Many of my classmates began to revert to the old-fashion pen and paper.  At the same time, certain professors started to ban the use of laptops in the classroom.  It seemed, at least to some students and instructors, that laptops had become a hindrance to learning.  Is this really the case?  Or, is there a place for laptops in the classroom?  Can laptops be used productively in the classroom, or are laptops simply a distraction?  In this post, we will review a few recent arguments and studies that address these questions.

First, there are some who advocate for the use of laptops in class, pointing to the potential benefits of laptops for learning.  For example, some argue, laptops can be used to encourage student engagement with class content.  Learning may be facilitated by strategically designed digital activities and tools that reinforce the course’s learning goalsThe Teaching Center Staff of Washington University points to a study describing the benefits of wisely implemented laptop use:

  • According to this study (Samson, 2010), the use of the interactive LectureTools app leads to a “dramatic increase in the number of students posing questions during class time” and suggests students may be more engaged in lectures.
  • The Teaching Center Staff also offers some examples for how digital activities and tools can encourage learning in the classroom.

 

Yet, many others argue that laptop-free classrooms are more conducive to learning. Several recent studies support this conclusion.  For example:

  • In one study (Sanaa, et al., 2013), laptop multitasking not only distracted laptop users from learning (leading to lower test scores), it also distracted others in the classroom who were sitting in view of their classmate’s laptop.
  • In another study (Mueller and Oppenheimer, 2014), students who took notes longhand performed better on conceptual questions than students who typed out their notes on laptops. Why? When writing longhand, students cannot write fast enough to record every word that a teacher speaks; instead they must summarize the main points, which requires active processing, evaluation, and paraphrasing. Laptop users, who can write faster, “transcribe lectures verbatim” without processing what they are writing.

 

In spite of these studies, some may still decide to allow laptops in the classroom; fortunately, guidelines exist that could help avoid some of the pitfalls of laptop use.  For example, The Center for Research on Learning and Teaching  (University of Michigan), suggests:

  • Making and communicating a clear laptop policy that allow the use of laptops for “legitimate classroom purposes” like notetaking and downloading class information, but which prohibits all other uses.
  • Creating a “laptop free” zone at the front of your classroom, for students who do not use laptops and who would be distracted by their classmates’ screens.
  • When using digital activities and tools in the classroom, make sure your classroom is set up to accommodate all of your students’ computers; consider the number of outlets; and remind students to charge their batteries before class. And make sure all of your students have access to a laptop.

 

Sources and Further Reading:

Pam A. Mueller and Daniel M. Oppenheimer, “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking” Psychological Science 25 no. 6 (June 2014), 1159-68.

P. J. Samson, “Deliberate engagement of laptops in large lecture classes to improve attentiveness and engagement” Computers in Education 20 (2010): 22–37.

Faria Sanaa, Tina Westonb, and Nicholas J. Cepedab, “Laptop multitasking hinders classroom learning for both users and nearby peers,” Computers & Education 62 (2013): 24–31.

 

Consider the testimony of Clay Shirky—internet technology consultant and usually that last to side with the Luddites—who recently decided to ban laptops from his classroom: “Why I Just Asked My Students to Put Their Laptops Away.”

And, that of Dan Rockmore: “The Case for Banning Laptops in the Classroom,” The New Yorker, 2014.

 

Older studies suggesting negative results for laptop use:

Helene Hembrooke and Geri Gay, “The Laptop and the Lecture: The Effects of Multitasking in Learning Environments,” Journal of Computing in Higher Education 15 (2003)

  • Hembrooke and Gay write, “Students in the open laptop condition suffered decrements on traditional measures of memory for lecture content.”

Carrie B. Fried, “In-class laptop use and its effects on student learning,” Computers & Education 50 (2008): 906-14.

  • Fried explains, “Results showed that students who used laptops in class spent considerable time multitasking and that the laptop use posed a significant distraction to both users and fellow students. Most importantly, the level of laptop use was negatively related to several measures of student learning, including self-reported understanding of course material and overall course performance.”

 

 

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