rebelling against low expectations

Laptops vs. Learning


The Rebelution: Laptops vs. Learning

“Could you repeat the question?”

That has become the most common response to questions I pose to my law students at Georgetown University. It is usually asked while the student glances up from the laptop screen that otherwise occupies his or her field of vision. After I repeat the question, the student’s gaze as often as not returns to the computer screen as if the answer might magically appear… Who knows, with instant messaging, maybe it will.

– David Cole, Laptops vs. Learning, Washington Post, April 7th, 2007 –

Earlier this month, David Cole, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center, wrote an op-ed piece for the Washington Post about banning laptop computers from his college classroom. As rebelutionaries, his words give us much food for thought.

Brett and I have written a lot about our generation and technology, both here and elsewhere. Many of the themes we’ve highlighted are echoed by Professor Cole:

With the aid of Microsoft and Google, we have effectively put at every seat a library of magazines, a television and the opportunity for real-time side conversations and invited our students to check out whenever they find their attention wandering… As for multitasking, I don’t buy it. Attention diverted is attention diverted.

Another reason for the laptop ban? Note-taking on a laptop encourages students to go into “stenographic mode,” focusing on getting a word-for-word transcript instead of actually listening, thinking and prioritizing the most important themes.

The results of Professor Cole’s experiment were strikingly positive:

About 80 percent reported that they are more engaged in class discussion when they are laptop-free. Seventy percent said that, on balance, they liked the no-laptop policy. 95 percent admitted that they use their laptops in class for “purposes other than taking notes, such as surfing the Web, checking e-mail, instant messaging and the like.”

Brett and I won’t be attending college until Fall 2008, but our day-to-day experience confirms what Professor Cole has observed. We can say we’re “listening” as we work on our laptops, but we know we’re not really listening (or learning) as well as we would if we stopped, turned and gave our undivided attention. More often than not, we’re shooting ourselves in the foot.

This brings us to the question: As rebelutionaries, are we willing to shut down, turn off, and (as my mom always says) “pivot” for the sake of greater competence?

Professor Cole concludes his op-ed piece with these words:

I am sure that the Internet can be a useful pedagogical tool in some settings and for some subjects. But for most classes, it is little more than an attractive nuisance. Technology has outstripped us on this one, and we need to reassess its appropriate and inappropriate role in teaching. The personal computer has revolutionized our lives, in many ways for the better. But it also threatens to take over our lives. At least for some purposes, unplugging may still be the best response.

For our currently college-attending readers: How common are laptops in class at your school? Do you use one? On balance, do you find that a laptop helps you be more engaged in your classes? If not, are you willing to go without it?

Brett and I are interested in hearing everyone’s input on this. Just remember, convenience (by itself) is not an argument here. As young adults, our focus is on preparation. As rebelutionaries, our goal is to travel the path that leads to the greatest level of competence, and that usually means doing hard things.

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About the author

Alex and Brett Harris

are the co-founders of and co-authors of Do Hard Things and Start Here. They have a passion for God and for their generation. Their personal interests include politics, filmmaking, music, and basketball. They are both graduates of Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Virginia.


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  • This is so true, inside and outside of college. When the group I work with has staff meetings to plan conferences, etc, we generally ask everyone to close their laptops because otherwise we all tend to disengage from the conversation when it doesn’t directly concern us or our specific jobs. We can get by by only paying partial attention, but we miss the big picture of conference planning. Even when meetings are tedious, and it seems like it doesn’t matter if we’re present or not, being tuned in to the conversation means we, as a group, can often prevent problems before they arise, evaluate ideas with more focus, and save ourselves the trouble of asking “catch-up” questions later.

  • I am about to graduate from college in 1 week, and I agree with Mr. Cole. I attend a large university (35,000 students), and many students have laptops. Not everyone has them out during class, though. I would say in a class of 100, there may be 10 laptops out, if that. I don’t have one, but if someone anywhere in front of me has one, it’s very distracting! They are usually surfing the internet, playing games, IMing, and generally doing anything but scrolling through the lecturer’s presentation along with them! It is a distraction for both the user and those around them, and I would support banning them from classes with a few exceptions where they’re necessary.

  • Computers have a very important role in learning in certain situations, but in others, there is very little reason to use one. I personally am a very technology oriented person, but I know that there are times when just getting away from *most* technology is a very good thing. You wouldn’t necessarily take a computer programing class without a laptop, but I think that it is completely feasible to take a.. say cooking class without one…

    As to multi tasking, it is entirely feasible for the human brain to do multiple things at once, and it seems that this generation has perfected the skill. However, one thing will always be the “top” process. In a computer environment, I can be typing, reading a IM, listening to music, and programing, downloading pictures off my camera, editing video, and working on a 3D effects simulation, all at the same time without much trouble. They all have to do with what I am doing at the moment, namely working on the computer. At the same time, in order to accomplish that, I have tuned out the sounds of my siblings doing schoolwork, I have very little knowledge of what is going on outside my windows, etc.

    Working on the computer definitely takes my attention away from the world around me. That is ok in it’s place. The computer is a great tool, but as every tool, it has it’s limitations. We just need to be careful that we own our computers, instead of our computers owning us.

  • Good point – our culture is obsessed with gadgets, whether or not they actually improve our lives or help us to do things better. Just because something is more technically sophisticated doesn’t necessarily make it an improvement, and I think as rebelutionaries we should resist the cult of progress and of constantly upgrading to the latest, slickest piece of techno-fashion.

    I’m studying English Literature and History at university. I have a laptop for word processing my essays, and it’s very handy to be able to take it to the library so I can work on my essays. But it’s useless trying to multitask between working and Messenger, Facebook, and other distractions. I often remove my wifi card from the computer and put it away somewhere to remove the temptation to distract myself by surfing the Internet whenever I get a bit stuck rather than working to get through whatever I’m finding difficult.

    Nobody I know at my university uses laptops in lectures or seminars, and though there is wifi internet access in library areas and halls of residence, it hasn’t been extended to lecture theatres, which I think is very sensible. There are some tasks where paper and pencil are just much better tools!

  • Caleb: Thanks for sharing about how you remove your wifi card to keep yourself from getting distracted. I often throw away my web browsers when I’m working on a big project. You are absolutely right that our tendency is to starting surfing the Internet as soon as what we’re working on gets difficult — but that’s exactly the time when we need to focus in and push through.

  • I think laptops can be useful for notetaking (altough the comment about “stenographic mode” is a valid one); however, in my experience, they offer a tremendous opportunity for distractions.
    Personally, I prefer to take a pen and notepad to class, take good notes, and then go back and transcribe them into my word processor. This has the added benefit of allowing me to go back over them a second time and review the lecture.
    Also, it can be difficult to get things like diagrams and illustrations into your notes in a lecture; these can be easily hand-drawn and then digitized later.

  • If computer usage is limited, the computer can become a really useful home work help and learning tool. Teachers should set a limit on how much time can be spent on it per class session, while only letting their students use the machine during the time allotted for math or certain english assignments( if the student own’s some type of portable storage device with which, he can transfer his work to another computer that is not a laptop, for the printing of completed classwork). Otherwise, a student should leave his portable computer at home. Some students, i might add, prefer the usage of notebooks because they are less prone breaking and never “freeze up”.

  • That was a great post, and so true! I am home-schooled and I often find myself checking my email or the like when I should be doing school-work. Because of this I generally try to avoid working on the compute; I only use it for research and writing papers. It is just so easy to get distracted or try to multitask, doing both school-work and leisurely activities.

    It’s interesting that Professor Cole got such a good response from his students over banning laptops. Students probably find it a relief to be able to study with less distractions (although I’m sure some students don’t appreciate it :wink:). It really is easier to get things done without those added diversions, and most importantly it adds to the quality of your work!

  • I am a freshman in a large community college and although few of the students bring computers to school there are many available. Many classrooms have computers and the public library attached to the school is practicly nothing but computers (this is a sad thing to me because I am an ardent book-lover). When I walk through the library appox. 80% of the students are on myspace, facebook, and other “fun” and sometimes disgusting websites. I am in a computer class and every spare minute all the other students are surfing. I myself am trying to “do hard things” cutting down on my internet time. This article is encourgaging to me. The Christian teens should stick together to influence our community! Thank you for your ministry!

  • Good observations.

    I have a laptop but never take it to class. It would be way too distracting; plus, as a commuter, I’d have to carry it around campus all day.

    How common are laptops in lectures? It depends on the class. One class I’m in this semester has 30+ students, but I don’t think I’ve seen a laptop once. Good note taking is critical for this class, but it would be difficult to accomplish with a laptop. (It’s an engineering class, so the equations and symbols are easier to write out by hand anyway.) But in another class with around 25 students, I’d say about three always bring their laptops. So it does vary. And yeah, I’d estimate that under 20% of students who bring laptops ever use it to take notes, and even those who do take notes do a lot of “other stuff.”

    The comment about “stenographic mode” is an interesting one. I could understand that being the case for, say, political science or history. It’s a little different for engineering, though. Professors usually work on the whiteboard/chalkboard, and copying exact notes can be helpful. When I don’t initially understand a concept, I’ll go through my notes again after class while doing the homework.

    I definitely learn best in lectures by using a pencil and a notebook. A lot of professors who don’t write on the board use PowerPoint or overhead projectors and hand out copies of their notes, but I find that it’s harder to learn and pay attention when I have no note taking to do.

  • I’m in my 30’s and a seminary student where laptop use in the class is much greater than my undergraduate days (probably 80% of the class). I am saddened by the large number of seminary students who play solitaire, instant message with friends, or surf the internet during class. Not only is it disrespectful, it is distracting to others as Bethany already mentioned.

    I agree with Samuel K. that taking notes by hand and then transcribing them into your favorite word processor can aid in learning the material. That is what I do and it tends to work really well for me. I’m undecided, however, whether an outright ban on classroom use would be the best answer.

    Thanks guys for helping us to think about this important issue!

  • I just finished my freshman year with Liberty University’s Distance Learning Program. Of course with online classes, a computer (laptop) is absolutely essential. But if I have to watch videos or listen to lectures, I will always take notes by hand. When I use a computer, I feel tempted to check my email or surf when I lose interest in what I’m hearing. I work better when it’s closed and I have a pen and paper in front of me. I think they are right: laptops are a distraction and can hinder the learning/hearing process.

  • Like you guys I won’t be starting my “career training” until fall 2008. Since I will be doing 90% of my training at home through computer classes and internet courses, my computer will play a vital part in my education. And since my career training is going to be in the field of computer and communication networking, the computer will be a very important tool for me, even when I take some hands on classes and is the reason why I will be getting a brand new lap top in 2008.

    However, as I currently finish up my high school courses, I find myself getting distracted alot. For example, I do my grammar using a Switch on Schoolhouse program and as soon as I’m done with my lesson, I tend to drift away from my school schedule to check email, read some blogs 😉 or play a game for about an hour, which can be such a waste of time. Plus my mom gets frustrated with me, when I have my headset on and she’s trying to get my attention about something.

    One idea is making it harder to check email by setting your email up to where you have to log in each time instead of your computer doing it automatically. Oh, and for mom’s sake, I keep one side of my head set off so I can hear her when she’s calling.

  • Banning usage of certian items won’t work. The same kids who play on their laptops in class are the same ones who drew dinosaurs driving cars on their notebooks ten years ago. Banning laptops will actually hinder many people as the majority seem to use them for note taking. I myself prefer paper and pencil for that, but many don’t. I think in the end alot of it is up to the kids themselves; they’re there to get an education, so they need to take some initiative. What would be next? Banning computers in dorms?

  • I personally don’t use a laptop in the classroom. I think it would be distracting. If I had a computer hooked up to internet, I would probably get too distracted (probably by checking blogs and e-mail). Besides, I type so poorly, I would be waaaay to far behind in my notes! 😀 Several people in my classes have them, not sure if they are taking notes or not….

  • I am not a college student, for my “higher education” won’t begin until Fall of 2008. However, I think I would find computers a distraction in my studying. I feel I would wander from the subject and instead read blogs, write e-mails, and things like that. I would much rather give my teacher my full attention, as opposed to having the temptation to not.

    Thus, with this opinion, I do not use computers with my school. (Unless I am working on a big research paper on the non-internet computer.) Plus, Mom wouldn’t be too keen on the idea! 🙂

  • I am homeschooled, so I cannot comment on using laptops in a classroom. However, though my laptop is a great aid in much of my schoolwork, if I am not careful, it can monopolize my time and keep me from spending time with my family or my Savior.

    I will not be entering college until Fall of 2009, but when I do, I do not plan on using a laptop to take notes. I know that I would be much too distracted to give the class my full attention and learn all that I could from it.

  • Although I’m only in high school, laptops (owned by the school) are used frequently in many of our classes. I have been guilty, as well as all the other students, of not focusing on what the teacher is saying while surfing the internet. I agree that it is extremely distracting, and I much prefer class without it. (In individual projects it’s fine, but not while a teacher is speaking or giving a lecture.) I also prefer taking hand-written notes. It helps me to learn better.

  • As for me, my laptop is my classroom! I’m actually living in Brazil right now, and through some neat technology, I am doing college through Liberty University here in Brazil. Its pretty neat, I watch my lectures on dvds on my laptop, (but usually take notes in a note book), and participate in online forums for the class discussions. We also write and submit papers, take tests, and do all sorts of stuff along those lines. (For those who are interested, Liberty’s DLP program uses the Blackboard software.) So, while I would agree with a lot of the above objections to laptops in a conventional classroom, I definitely would not agree with a blanket statement saying laptops are detrimental to learning. As with all things, it depends on how you use them. Overuse of virtually anything can result in all sorts of problems, from inhibited learning to idolatry. At any rate, those are my thoughts on the subject.

  • Wow, that is something important to think about. I am only in high school and I had to laugh when I read the topic of the post. See I am doing Internet School with NSA or NorthStar Academy this year. My mom is always asking me how I can listen to music, and sometimes even chat while studying. Somehow I do it. But I can totally see how in a classroom setting that would be distracting. I think laptops can be a big help in taking notes, but students who do that need to be able to control what they allow themselves to do besides that.

  • I’d say about 15% of people in my college classes use laptops in class. About all of them, as far as I know, surf the web during lectures.

    As for me, I have a laptop and I use it in class, but I am taking notes the whole time. I almost NEVER surf the web in class (because I think it’s disrespectful–and because it would make my grades suffer!). Usually, if there is a lull in the lecture or if for some reason there is no need to be taking notes for several minutes at a time, I’ll close my laptop lid and try to make eye contact with the professor. I do this specifically because I don’t want my professors to think I’m goofing off on the computer.

    Re note taking: I’m one of those who tends toward “word for word” transcripts of class lectures, but I don’t really think this is a bad thing. It doesn’t stop me from thinking, and I still have to evaluate and prioritize the info for tests and papers.

    I COULD force myself to take sparser notes, but personally, I really like being able to take very detailed notes on a computer. Then I have access to the information for the future. I keep my notes from past semesters, and I regularly go back to check something a professor said in a class from a previous term.

    All that said, I wouldn’t mind if my profs banned laptops in the classroom. I know I’m using my laptop to good purpose, but for most people, it seems laptops are just a gadget with which to entertain themselves in class.

  • We don’t ban pencils because those who doodle are distracted by them. Pencils, like laptops, are tools. Effective use will reflect the wisdom/discipline of the user.

    I learn better when I take notes, and I can type faster than I write – therefore I’m a supporter of allowing laptops in a classroom. If someone else is using it disrespectfully or is allowing it to distract them, their grade will reflect that. However, if your discipline level (this requires honest personal assessment) is great enough to use this tool as an asset, then it will be a benefit. If you recognize that playing games or sending emails during a discussion is disrespectful, you probably won’t have a problem. On the other hand, if you’re easily distracted by your laptop (or any other item) then it might be better to leave that item at home.

  • I attend a private Christian university, and while laptop use during class is not as common here as it is at many other schools, it does happen, especially in some of the larger classes. In one of my classes freshman year, I had a lot of friends who took their laptops, and tried it one day to see if it was helpful for taking notes. I was very distracted just by having a screen in front of face, even though I didn’t give in to the temptation to “multi-task” (if you can call IM and websurfing “tasks”). The next day I went back to my faithful notebook and pencil! Unless a class specifically calls for the use of computers for a particular function, I don’t see any benefits to taking notes on a laptop instead of by hand.

  • I don’t have a laptop, but have considered getting one for presentation purposes for work. When I finished some extra college classes two summers ago, about half the student had laptops. Half of us didn’t. I was glad to have a digital camara, so that if our teacher’s power point slides were going faster than I’d like, I could click a picture of one, and get the information I needed later. But, I think a laptop for note taking, or other purposes would probably have been a big distraction for me. – JN.14:27 Rom.5:8

  • I could be called a tech geek. I am a web programmer/designer. And, I have a bachelor’s degree from a private theological college and will begin work on my master’s in Theology in the fall. And I am totally opposed to have my laptop forcibly turned off. I believe it should be up to the learner. If you take better notes with pen and paper then do that, but I type double the speed of what I can handwrite and I don’t have to worry about running out of ink (just power).

    I think the larger issue at hand is self-control. It’s difficult to succumb to the temptation to surf the web or IM because when I’m focused on the class and the discussion. Those who do zone out and begin to do other things should do the rest of the class a favor and go back to your dorm room to goof off. I pay for my education and I want all I can get from it. So I type, I discuss, I even follow the professor back to their office after class and chat with them. But when that class is over it’s on to the next one, there is no time to go back to my house and transcribe notes when I’m busy with my wife or three kids, not to mention work or church (I’m only 24)!

    Get serious about your education and don’t allow yourself to get distracted. If it helps, disable your wi-fi or ethernet port, delete all of the games and sit closer to the front of the classroom. We shouldn’t become less technological because technology is being abused anymore than I should stop taking Sudafed because some people use it to make Crystal-Meth.

    We should sacrifice that part of ourselves that is tempted to abuse technology and use it rather for the glory of God and the furtherance of His kingdom. It’s all about stewardship.

  • I attend a relatively small university, and while there are always a few students with laptops in my classes, I don’t usually see very many in each class. In my biggest class, which has about 150-200 people in it, probably about 9 or 10 (at most) use laptops. They are kind of just now becoming popular to use at our school. Most of the students that I know own laptops, but we just don’t use them in class. I have one (that I’m using right now) that I use mainly for assignments and studying. I find that I can concentrate on the lecture much better if I just print out the powerpoints and make notes on the page. Plus, with all the books I have to carry, a laptop is just too much.

    Honestly, I notice that most of the people that are using their laptops in class are using them to play computer games, IM, e-mail, etc. Most of the time, the students that I see using the good ol’ pen/pencil and notebook seem to be paying attention more and make much better grades. The students that do take notes on their laptops often seem distracted by issues such as formating.

    That being said, though, I don’t think that laptops should be completely banned from classrooms. Maybe certain classes where they are just not necessary, but who can say that students wouldn’t find ways to be distracted without laptops? I don’t think it’s an issue of the computer distracting; it’s an issue of the student being distracted. My lab partner text messages throughout most of her classes. The student next to me in my anatomy class was so bored one day that he actually draw cartoon characters on his jeans! Students always have and always will find ways of not paying attention in class. As the previous poster said, it’s all about stewardship. God has given us brains to use for His glory. We must make sure that we do everything “as unto Him.”

  • * On the other side…..

    I’m pursuing my higher studies abroad presently and the university I attend though extremely advanced technology wise (for an International University) doesn’t even consider the option of a laptop in our classes. Our conterparts on the engineering side are encouraged and even given laptops as apart of their course whereas in the medical side it’s completely overlooked as a class room tool.

    Personally, I type faster then I write . It’s defintely been a challenge over the past couple of years to organize the teachers presentations and extra tidbits, my own thoughts of what are important , listen understand then reproduce it on paper.- all in an attempt not to miss anything before the teacher goes to the next power point slide.

    My fraustration has arisen on many occasions when teachers say everything at an unrecordable rate – my notes just seem very incomplete .

    It was hard coming from an american background(in comparison I was spoon fed) , and learning to “write notes” but I will admit it has taught me to rise to the occasion and learn. Though I would still prefer a laptop anyday ! Learning is a multistep process I don’t want to be so worried about “writting” notes when I should be absorbing and learning.

    I agree, as many of you pointed out it can be a great distraction when not used with discipline. Stewardship with Divine accountability is the key.

  • My brother is a freshman at a small college of about 400-500 people. He has told us that using a laptop is very helpful – of course, I do not know what he does on his laptop during class, but I know that he can type a lot faster than he can write. Once he was also assigned to take notes for a deaf classmate, and he told us that since his handwriting is almost illegible to everyone but himself, it was a lot easier to type the notes. I understand that they can be distracting, but if you have motivation to excel in your schoolwork and do your best, I believe that you can keep your mind on topic and not stray to other things.
    I am homeschooled, and I take some classes on the Internet for homeschooled students. I do sometimes play Solitaire or something similar while the teacher is talking, but if I realize that I am not taking in what she is saying, I will turn off the game and listen.

  • This really is a problem. I too have struggled with keeping my focus correct while using a laptop. I do try to listen to the others in my home while I’m working on mine, but they tell me that my response times and comprehension are limited. Simply put, I’m distracted.

    It’s a bit of a difficult situation for me since this is the second year I’ve been taking online college classes. My classroom is on my laptop, as are most of my assignments, the discussion forums I’m required to take place in, and the lectures I’m required to listen to. I’ve found that the more I try to multitask, combining schoolwork with socialization, the less productive I am as a student and the longer it takes for me to complete my assignments. I’ve visited various colleges in the past, and it seems like students who study on a campus with their laptops in the classroom are often just as distracted as I allow myself to become. No matter how efficient we think we are at doing other things while studying, we simply cannot expect the same results if we aren’t giving our studies our full attention. It’s like trying to listen to my mom instruct me while chatting on the phone with a friend.

    As a result, my parents and I have realized the necessity of separating school time and socialization/entertainment time, and this is something that we’ve been starting to implement in our home.
    If students have the discipline to be in class and use their laptops for only class-related tasks, then I’d encourage them to take advantage of the technology. Typing up notes can be easier than writing them. If they don’t have the discipline, then they’re better off honestly assessing and recognizing the problem and taking a good, old-fashioned notepad.

  • How common are laptops in class at your school?

    Not very…maybe 10-20% of the students use them.

    Do you use one?

    I do.

    On balance, do you find that a laptop helps you be more or less engaged in your classes?

    I tend to be more engaged when I have the laptop. This is primarily because I’m not having to worry about catching up in my writing/note-taking.

    Finally, are you willing to go without it?

    No. I have endeavored to be able to write faster and neater over the last several years but, unfortunately, cannot take notes by hand because they are either incomplete or illegible. Thus, a laptop allows me to focus on what is said and make sure I have complete notes throughout. It would be well-night impossible to do this were I depending on pen and paper (which are also rather costly…).

  • I’m homeschooled and will not even graduate untill 2010. I do not use the computer for school, exept when I have a paper to write and I do not have a book on the topic. But I do know how hard it is to IM and try to take notes off of the computer. I have tried, and I got much more done when I stoped IMing.
    So I would say that laptops are not something you should use in collage. Well, other then if your doing correspondence classes, in which you would have to use a laptop.
    This is a very good artical, thanks for writing it.

  • I’m only a freshman in high school, but I take classes at a community college. Laptops aren’t to common in class, but my dad is a professor at a Christian college, and the students their are definitly very attached! Its rather rude to, to visit my Dad’s class and see the person in front of me viewing the scores for a baseball game.

    I’m sure a laptop could not help me be more engaged in class, since I am all ready easily distracted by doodling, when trying to take notes.

    At home I have the same problem Holly wrote of- multitasking, or getting things done but checking my e-mail to often. I’m working on that!

  • From the number of opinionated responses it’s interesting to see how something that once was a novelty has almost become a commodity!

    Although many students do seem to use laptops as their distraction of choice, I would not blame their distraction on the object itself. During one of my classes at a state university many of the students watched movies, basketball re-runs, or various music videos on their laptops during class. Yet, when their laptops were unavailable, they turned to their cell phone, neighbor, or the wonderful land of dreamland. 😉 Other students used their laptops to follow along with the powerpoint or take notes.

    The situation at the school reminds me of what a guest speaker once spoke about. He said, if a person really wants to do something, they’ll do it. If they don’t do it, they really don’t want to do it. It sounds obvious but think about it in the context of weight control. So many women want to lose weight… but they’re not taking steps towards their goal. If they’re not actively pursuing their goal (exercise, dieting, etc) do they *really* want to lose weight… or are they only making claims to that end? If a person desires to learn, listen and interact, they will. But if they’re wanting to be distracted, they’re going to find a way.

    At my sister’s college (a well known Christian school, strong in its academics) some of the students choose to play games during class despite the fact their education comes with a high price tag. At a similar Christian school, the administration has decided to put a firewall in between the hallway and the classroom: on the hallway-side one can access the internet, on the other side one can’t. Yet, as a student mentioned, “if the person is looking for ways to get distracted, for loopholes, they certainly can find them.”

    So, yes, computers can be distracting, but should schools intervene and ban laptops in the classroom? Is the problem better solved by limiting internet access? The best solution, in my opinion is what Holly mentioned, “if they don’t have the discipline, then they’re better off honestly assessing and recognizing the problem and taking a good, old-fashioned notepad.”

    On a personal note, when I allow myself to get distracted by the computer and I’m preparing for a test, I tend to limit the time I spend on “fun” activities… and I ask my friends to keep me accountable. 😉 They’re asked to tell me to get off IM and go study. *sheepish* Perhaps I should have more self discipline… but I’m thankful for their help. 🙂

    […sorry for the lonnnnnng comment! :P]

  • I’m just finished my first year at a Christian university, and I take my laptop to school every day (I commute). It’s my portable study because I always have music to tune out people walking by and all my written assignments at hand if I have the time (and motivation :P) to work. That said, I don’t use it in every class. I completely rely on it for a subject like history, because it lets me keep up with my prof where I’d be scrambling all class to try to get everything by hand. On the flip side, I never use it in english because I like to be able to draw arrows and scribble in margins and besides, I don’t need to write down every word that comes out of the prof’s mouth. Like (all?) technology, it’s a useful tool that can be, and is, misused. Laptops are common at my school–probably around 30% (maybe more) of people have one, and nearly every first-year class I’ve had somebody is abusing their privilege. There is a certain amount of passive justice though–these people probably wouldn’t be contributing if they used pen and paper, and they aren’t the ones who will do well in the course.

    So, I do use a laptop (in some classes), find it very helpful for keeping up with the prof and in making good notes. I would object to a laptop ban because it would penalize the good students for their classmates’ misbehaviour, but I have no problems with profs who want me to sit in the front row(s) to use my laptop, or who impose fearful penalties on distracting students.

  • A laptop is a tool that can be used efficiently in class or to play games. A tool is controlled by the person using the tool. Banning laptops is not the solution. Teaching students responsibility and that by wasting times playing games in class they are only hurting themselves is.

    As others have stated, ban laptops and something else will become a distraction. But teach discipline and self-control, there will not be a distraction.

  • Perhaps it would be good to clarify that Brett and I are not advocating that laptops be banned from classrooms, only that rebelutionaries use wisdom and discernment in when (and how) to use them. It is true that all technology (even pencils) can be abused, but it is not true that all technology presents the same level of temptation and opportunity for distraction.

  • Well, I’d have to admit that I am a laptop user in class. And I would have to say that there have been times that it has been a distraction. However, it is helpful in a few ways. My teachers use power points fairly often as a part of the class. So most of my fellow class mates (and I) pass the power point around to each other on a flash drive. During class, I usually run through the power point at the same rate as the teacher, mostly so I can take notes if they advance it too quickly before I’m finished.

    Of course, having my browser open is very distracting, so I only will allow myself to have it open if I am using it to look up things the teacher is talking about. I also don’t sign in to my IM, just so it won’t pop up the little notices of who’s online.

    I think that they can be helpful, but there is the distraction factor to consider.

  • Yup I agree.. it keeps you from focusing… neways, I know this is way off the subject but Alex, Brett I have a question? What is you music standerds? Where do you draw the line?

  • As an older, returning to college student, I’ve both taken notes by hand and notes on my laptop. Laptop notetaking wins hands down. As for online distractions–well, I’m all for students engaging in self-discipline when in class. . .

  • I agree with the basic premise put forth by Professor Cole, but at the same time, like David Ketter, I find myself using them (computers in general) out of necessity and not preference.

    I actually prefer not to use computers, but I find myself using them so much for research that would otherwise take ages to do, that I really think perhaps I should go ahead and get my own lap top.

    Of course, Alex and Brett are not saying that laptops are a bad thing. They’re cautions concerning laptops (and the cautions of Professor Cole) are very real and should be given much thought. But as Becky said, even if it is simply our own lively imaginations, something is always going to be tempting us to divert out attention away from tat which it should be focused on.

    So the issue doesn’t seem to be laptops so much as it is peoples propensity to distraction, which it is true, laptops can easily accommodate.

    But as Alex said…just about anything can be abused.

  • yep, I totally agree. Whenever I try to multitask with laptops
    I always end up not really listening. the same is true with so many
    other things too though, especially iPods. In my classes, we made a
    rule that we couldn’t bring iPods with us… having one earphone in
    your ear can be kind of distracting. 🙂

  • As a first-year student at UT Law, I have a somewhat unique perspective, because laptop use is rather controversial among the faculty. My contracts professor banned them from her classroom and strongly recommended we never use them anywhere, and several of my professors (who with fear and trembling decided to allow them) reserved the right to require us to close the laptops if they felt the need. The professors were concerned, as noted above, that no critical thinking would occur in between hearing and writing, that students would surf the internet, and that the class environment would change as students became more focused on their noisy computers.
    Personally, the internet is a temptation in boring classes; the interesting, demanding ones have their own ways of keeping me focused. I might point out that whatever the advantages of using good ol’ paper and pencil inside class, word processors are more efficient at organizing material.

  • I am a junior at a public high school, and I never really noticed before how much of a problem this was. My school offers classes from the Project Lead the Way program, which encourages youngsters like me to explore the many and varied potential careers in engineering before we get to college (and have to pay for the same sort of classes). As a result, computers are a big part of class; we use them for programming, drawing circuit schematics, drafting, etc. I like learning about all this, but the classes are very loosely structured and not very rigorous. I might finish an assignment early, or put off doing it for half an hour because I know I can finish it quickly, and meanwhile work on that history assignment I’ve been putting off and is due next period. The other students might do the same, but they mostly fill that empty time with online games, e-mail, or MySpace (which is blocked but still accessible via proxy sites). It’s very discouraging to look up from my computer and see this, because it does look like fun, if not worthwhile. I think in college I’ll stick to pen and paper whenever possible; even my doodles in the margin usually connect back to the lesson, and a blank page is much less distracting than all the buttons and links that are simply on the computer desktop.

  • I beleive if we begin to take our laptops into the sanctuary and say to the pastor “Could you repeat the question?”, that would be a much more important problem to deal with.

  • I’m a graduate student, and I always take notes on my laptop in class. I rarely multitask. For me it’s not a hindrance from being actively engaged in class. I prefer it because I can take better notes, and because it’s so much better for me to have my notes in electronic form for many reasons–having a backup, being able to share them with a classmate who may have had to miss class that day, having ready access to them at all times without having to lug around heavy notebooks, etc. I know it’s not all about convenience, but for me it’s not only NOT a hindrance, but it’s a help.

  • I am a part of a distance learning college, for which I use my laptop only to take notes, listen to lectures, and write papers. However, it is far to easy to slip onto the internet (facebook, xanga, etc.) or instant messenger and attempt to multi-task. It is definitely a distraction, but at the same time, when I’m in a class setting (Summit Colorado), my laptop allowed me to take notes at a higher level than I would have been able to with a pen/paper because of my slow writing speed. These detailed notes allowed me to go back and re-read/re-digest the information years later. In a classroom situation, I found I was able to listen and take notes sufficiently, as well as be involved with class discussion…but that’s just me.

  • Although we are homeschooled seniors in high school, we have been jointly enrolled at a state university for the past four semesters. The only reason we have laptops at all is this particular university’s requirement that every student have one. So, laptops are more than common at our school- they are an unvarying presence. Also, unfortunately, free wireless web access is available in every classroom, so the majority of students have their computers connected to the web during all classes. Some students even boast of shopping online or watching videos during classes. We could not believe how precisely accurate are your descriptions of such things as the common, computer-absorbed student’s “uh, could you repeat the question?” Of all our classes, we have only ever used our laptops in biology lectures, because we receive so much information so fast, and it is much easier to organize and edit our notes and later add our own study guides and tips when our notes are on computer. We have to be conscious, though, of limiting our computer activity to typing and continuing to participate in class. Although we do think our laptops help us achieve our goal of attaining the highest level we can in this particular course, they are certainly not indispensible to us even in these lectures. For our other classes, we strongly prefer taking notes on paper. We definately believe that in general, the use of laptops in the classroom can be a serious obstacle to taking responsibility to be engaged and to learn in class. A laptop provides an easy way out of a difficult task, a distraction from something distasteful. Ultimately, we have been struck by this view many students have of classes. Because many have a “do only easy things” mindset, even removing their laptops will not solve their penchant for distracting themselves. Recently, on one of the rare occasions that a professor asked all computers to be shut, students took out cell phones under their desks and began sending text messages. When the professor asked for cell phones to be put away, at least a quarter of the class proceeded to comfortably arrange themselves, heads on desks, and appear to be sleeping. It has been very discouraging to see such behavior, and has convinced us even more that we must “force the antithesis.” On the contrary, your blog has been a great encouragement. Thank you for so zealously and excellently fighting the uphill battle to reclaim our generation for the Kingdom.

  • I have learned far more from my college classes by taking notes on my laptop than I could have without it. Everyone at my school has a laptop, so they do not have the distraction of novelty. Many use them in class, some for notes and some for other activities. I do not turn on my wireless receiver in class, and am rarely tempted to use it for other than note-taking purposes in class. If you come to learn, and pay attention, a good class will employ your time and attention, so you won’t have time to itch for distractions.

    The “stenographer” objection is interesting, but I disagree with it. Though I write neatly, I type much faster – everyone does with a little practice. My classes require me to know more than a summary of the main points, and I would far rather have available for later study all those details that I can type but couldn’t write. When I have tried to take notes by hand, I find myself missing points because I’m still trying to write down the previous ones. It makes me pay less attention in class because I’m so worried about catching up and writing what I just heard instead of listening to what the professor is saying now. Perhaps I just never learned how to take notes well. But I think it is much better to be able to study my thorough, “stenographer” notes and learn all the details, than to remember only my summary.

    At the college stage, I believe students need to wake up and learn that they are responsible to do their work and exercise self-control and diligence. I see laptops as a useful tool, which comes with temptations we should be able to handle. For this reason it would seem worse to ban laptops, because that tells students that they are not expected to use them maturely. I see the primary purpose of laptops as helpful, not detrimental, to academics.

  • I know that a lot of people misuse technology for instant messaging and other things. Not all of us do, and to say that laptops are bad is just SNF. LOL.

  • I think if you type better than you write and you don’t get sidetracked easily, laptops are great!!, for those kind of ppl. When it comes to a classroom and trying to solve the problem of banding laptops it helps some but hurts others.. but to ppl that laptops become a problem… think about it, it pretty much a blame on their own self-control.
    They could blame it on paper..cuz they where doodling!! but yeah…

  • As a computer science major (without a laptop… go figure), I think it can be very helpful when it comes to taking notes. I would much rather take notes on my computer (at least for some classes). The problem comes when one uses the laptop as a distraction from listening to the teacher. Laptops are not common in classes at my school. We usually have one or two in a 30 student class. I don’t think laptops should be banned from classes, but I do think teachers should specify what can and cannot be done during class. I know a few teachers that don’t allow laptops in their classes, and I think that is a good way of handling it. I don’t think it should be a school-wide thing though. Another thing to consider is that the people behind the person using the laptop can be easily distracted by what the person is doing on the laptop. I guess it is a maturity issue. If you can stay focused with a laptop in front of you, then go for it! If not, have the self control to not bring your laptop to class, and focus. Remember why we go to school and learn this stuff. It is ultimately to glorify Christ! With this view in mind, doing our best at school will come naturally.

  • As in every class, consult with the instructor! Ask him or her for their recommendation/preference about laptops when you consult with them about the best practices in general for their course. Do this at the beginning of the term.

    With a little discipline, one can always turn off all functions but the MS Word program when using the laptop in the classroom.

    I find that taking notes on a laptop is indispensable for the following courses: 1) survey courses 2) courses in which there is a lot of lecturing 3) courses that will culminate in a final that will require the organization of large amounts of material and 4) courses which offer information that you will want to refer back to quickly and easily in the future. As a former law student, my laptop was TRULY indispensable for all of these tasks.

    On the other hand, WRITE your notes for 1) smaller, more focused courses and 2) courses that are run like a seminar and require conversation. Writing your notes does help you to retain information when dealing with more detailed material, and writing your notes in a small group seminar is more courteous than peering around a laptop screen at your colleagues.

    Interesting issue here, fellow luddites.

  • Although I don’t start college till this coming fall, I had the privilege of taking a month of summer school last summer to get an early start on college credits. I took a laptop to class for taking notes and found it very helpful, but I did not generally have the internet distraction, as I turned my wireless off to save battery life (2 2 hour classes…) so that eliminates that problem. Taking notes typing helps my because I can type faster than I can write, and you would not want to have to try to read later what I try to write fast…

    I think I pretty much agree with MM who posted just before mine… The classes I used my laptop for notes were classes with 90% lecture. No one size fits all: they can be a tremendous aid, but must be used with care to avoid distraction.

  • I diasgree with your argument that using laptops for taking notes in class puts you in the stenographer’s mode trying to jot down the teacher’s words word for word. I’ve studied both abroad where people use laptops and in India where everyone generally writes notes by hand. I am used to both techniques, and having written notes by hand for 23 years. I have to say, me and most people in my class in India would all get into the stenographic mode. So its no different from the laptop technique really. We hardly ever made eye contact with the teacher, missed out on questions, so busy were we writing our notes out by hand in our efforts to “kep up” with the teacher, and added to that the physical pain your hand was in at the end of each lesson! I think in this case, the onus lies on the teacher to teach in such a way that he/she outlines the basic concepts and encourages the students to think rather than drone on in lecture mode. But then again, that’s why a lecture is a lecture and a seminar is a seminar.

  • Yeah, that’s why I want to learn shorthand. It’s so much faster than writing the notes out in English letters.

  • I also believe that computer usage whilst listening to a lecture or speech is inappropriate and distracting. Being homeschooled my laptop is a source of much needed information and other school related works but I never use it during school hours without working on it directly with the subject at hand. Laptops provide much fun and help, but there is no place for them in the middle of an academic lecture or discourse.

  • This is a good subject for me because, Lord-willing, in 2 years, I’ll be in college. I feel that for me it would be good, because I am a quick typer and when I write I can’t write for long because my hands start to hurt and I can’t keep up. I am one that would be paying for college myself and so wasting time not paying attention in class would be wasting time and money that I don’t have a lot of. I also have read some of the articles and see that it is distracting to others in the class. So it is definitely something I would be praying about. I have a laptop, but it’s for school use, as I’m homeschooled, and when I graduate I have to turn it it. So getting my own laptop may be a challenge as well. It’s all in God’s timing though and I trust He will help me decide.

  • Thank you so much for that article, Alex and Brett. I have seen so many friends get “sucked in” to their respective gadgets and what not, and it can be distracting even for those who are not using laptops. However, my response to this problem would be a mite different. While I would definitely still give the warning, I would also encourage young men and women to learn to use the resources available to the best advantage, instead of turning to them simply as a distraction. As the husbandmen of creation, it is our job to use the resources (yes, including laptops) that we have been given to the glory and edification of God. Finis.

  • As a home school student I am not really faced with this problem. However even when I am with a friend and they are on the computer, trying to have a conversation with me, talking on the phone (to another person), and doing whatever else they are doing it is very anoying. So I can only imagine what it does in a school setting.

  • Yeah I am a homeschooler like Sarah, and I definitely agree. Laptops are definitely distracting because most kids aren’t taking notes, but doing things that they know they shouldn’t. Also, like laptops, cellphones have the same problems. Teens get sucked in to the texting and instant messaging and what not. In many instances I have seen numerous teens in my youth group texting their friends! And they do it during the service! If I’m the only one that thinks that is so disrespctful, then I guess I stand alone. But I will not ever alow myself to text during a service, or any where that I know I shouldn’t be! And I definitely agree with Kirklan Moss. Instead of letting laptops be a distraction, we should use them for the glory of God like blogging about how great God is!! -Olivia 🙂

  • Wow guys, this is so true! I went to a private school for half of my freshman year and all the kids did was play on their laptops for the entire class period. As soon as the bell rang, you could always count on every kid pulling out their computers within three minutes before the teacher even started teaching anything. The worst part was that none of the teachers did anything about it and the kids were iChatting right under their noses! I am definitely opposed to computers.

  • Well, for me taking a laptop to a class would be impossible. First of all, I’m homeschooled and I have good old fashioned textbooks. Second of all, I know that teens are supposed to be able to do 100 things at once, but I get INCREDIBLY distracted. I can do one thing at one time, unless, of course, I’m cooking; then I can do up to *gasp* three things. I may have multiple windows open, but that is only because I don’t want to lose where I am in whatever I WAS doing. I do like computers, though 😉 I’ll (hopefully) be getting a laptop soon so I can work on my writing projects more (I know, I’m too lazy to write it all on paper. I can type faster than i can write, though. And it’s much neater.) Anyway, In no way do I condone laptops, but as for me trying to use them during a time when anyone was talking or demonstrating something, I would be hopelessly lost. I actually have to stop what I’m doing on the computer to hear what somebody’s saying. That’s how bad I am at multi-tasking. Well, SOME people just say I’m scatter-brained. 😉
    ~Kay Morris

  • I think that is so true. I’m only a freshmen but our school allows you to use laptops and somtimes provides them in class. I realized that taking notes with laptops is to distracting. They are good however when you are researching something in class.

  • As a homeschooled-highschooler putting in her opinion amongst mostly college-aged people here, it may seem out of place, but here goes.

    I take all my subjects from an online classical academy, and, to do that, you have to be on the laptop/computer. So I see where all the temptations come in–email, surf the net, im, play games, etc–and I agree that an immense amount of discretion and wisdom must be used. But, for things like note taking, laptops can be very useful. For example, if you’re in English class, you can have different documents for the notes from each different book you discussed in class. But point taken on the stenography thing. I haven’t done that yet (I have a single track mind, and when I’m discussing words and books, I think in words that I find in books), but, again, I can see where discretion is needed.

  • I attend University of Iowa and in my big lectures, such as Psychology and Chemistry, many students (at least 25%) use laptops to take notes. In psychology, the professor doesn’t post his notes online, so we HAVE to take notes. In chemistry, the professor posts everything, so most people who actually go to the lectures are on Facebook or IMing their friends, not really paying attention.
    In our smaller (discussion) classes of 20-30 students, I’ve seen maybe one or two people bring their laptop to class. It’s unnecessary in that situation and rendered useless.
    I personally don’t use a laptop in class because of the distractions of the world wide web. When I have to write a paper on my laptop, I turn my internet off because I know I’ll get distracted by it and not be able to finish.

  • I, for one, am struggling with this. But I’m praying hard for God to help me overcome this. Though laptops provide a great deal of convenience in our lives as students, we must not ignore the fact that laptops still entice us to the temptations of surfing the net, playing games, etc. that robs us the time we should be using for our education. I’m not saying it’s bad to surf the net or anything, we still need recreation, but we have to discipline ourselves and prioritize our actions. I firmly believe we need God to help us, and self-discipline also counts.

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rebelling against low expectations

The Rebelution is a teenage rebellion against low expectations—a worldwide campaign to reject apathy, embrace responsibility, and do hard things. Learn More →