By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

Laptops in the classroom: tool or time-waster?

The semester will shortly begin at universities around the country, and with it the latest chapter of every professor's dilemma about students' use of laptops in class. For those unaware of this issue, many professors believe that laptops (and now mobile devices connecting to the Internet) threaten to bring an end to higher education.

Students find it convenient to take notes in class on these devices, but over the years more and more students have started to use laptops for various Internet-related activities — and paying less attention to the class.

Professors now need to figure out which policies to adopt regarding the acceptability of laptops in class. Five years ago nobody thought much of it, but now it’s become a common topic for discussion (or gossip) among faculty. (Some universities have adopted schoolwide policies. I have been told, though I have not confirmed this, that Harvard Business School bans laptops and has turned off wireless connections in classrooms. I also heard an unconfirmed story that the Kennedy School Student Government had considered requesting that laptops/mobile devices be banned, but in the end didn't do so.)
Though the question is a modern one, it raises ancient philosophical issues. The most basic one is whether banning laptops in the classroom (and/or banning their use for Internet surfing of various sorts) is paternalistic and hence unjustified. If students want to sacrifice part of the value of their expensive classroom time by multitasking, do faculty members have any right to stop them?  One might even argue that competition from the Internet is good, like other forms of competition, because it keeps faculty on their toes — bore the students, and they are off to the Internet.
These are not stupid arguments. But I have two counters.
One is that — especially at a place such as the Kennedy School, where we are educating people to serve others — student failure to pay sufficient attention in the classroom is likely to hurt their ability to do the best possible job after they graduate in serving society. Multitasking is unlikely to cause a student to do so badly in a class that he or she fails to graduate from the Kennedy School (if it threatens to do so, it is likely to be self-limiting), and probably won't affect a student's grades enough to cost the student a desired job. But it is likely to worsen the ability of our graduates to perform at the highest possible level on their jobs. Since education in other programs also is likely generally to produce gains for society, poorer student preparation hurts society, not just the student who is multitasking.
There is also an issue of respecting others in the classroom. Students who multitask on the Internet are not just showing disrespect for their teachers, they are also showing it for their classmates, suggesting that what people are saying doesn't merit undivided attention. This disrespect hurts others, not just the student who is multitasking.
By the way, I am curious whether this is an issue in countries outside the U.S., and, if so, how it is handled.
FYI, my own class policy is announced in my syllabus, as follows (emphases in the original): "In class, use of laptops to take notes is fine. However, use of laptops in class to check e-mail, surf the Web, use Facebook or Twitter, text,  etc. [is] unprofessional and disrespectful to everyone in the classroom. All mobile devices must be switched off during class." (With the spread of iPhones, I am adding for the first time language about mobile devices, which are rapidly becoming the most common way to use Facebook, Twitter and similar services.)

Posted on Aug 25, 2011 at 7:27 PM

Reader Comments

Tue, Aug 30, 2011

Once upon a time I allowed students to use laptops to take notes in my classes. I soon observed something: As students typed they went into their own little worlds, delimited by the little screen in front of them. Physically, they were in the class, but some important part of them was elsewhere. Web surfing and emailing was not a problem in those days. Now it is, and you can make all the rules you want, but there is no way for a teacher to monitor what students are doing on their laptops without walking around like some kind of enforcer, which is beneath my dignity. Now, I absolutely forbid the use of laptops and other "electronic devices" in the classroom. iPads and phones must be put away and kept out of sight. I insist upon note-taking with pen and paper. As a result, students have their heads in the game and no one has to listen to the clatter-clatter-clatter of fingers on keyboards, which annoys the heck out of me. Remarkably, I get no complaints. But it would not make any difference if I did. My classes are full with a waiting list.

Mon, Aug 29, 2011 RAD Virginia

I support Kelman's position on this matter. As always, a tool brought in to the environment with the capability to further progress and increase the output of those associated is used for things other than its original intent, resulting in a negative impact as well as a positive one. If everyone would use personal electronic devices (PED) for their intended purpose and focus on the activities at hand, then there would be nothing but a positive outflow and this discussion wouls be moot. Unfortunately, we have all seen instances where PED's are abused, whether it be in the classroom, in business meetings, or at home, and have had to suffer the negative results. The lack of full participation in the class or meeting is disrespectful to all those present, and the over use at home has caused strained relations between spouses, as well as parents and their children. It is not the tool that is the problem, rather it is the problem user that is the real issue. If all could be made to behave appropriately, then there would be no issue and great benefit can be gained and discussions enhanced. But, since this is never to happen in total, there have to be boundaries put in place so that we all get the most from those with whom we interact in these closed environments (classrooms, meetings, home, etc.) and the tools put before us are used for the betterment of the experience for the whole. Yes, this is a soapbox issue for me, and I work in IT (specifically in the CIO office on enterprise architecture).

Mon, Aug 29, 2011 Mike

Doonesbury covered this in a strip a few years ago. http://images.ucomics.com/comics/db/2007/db071111.gif

Fri, Aug 26, 2011 SC

This is not only an issue for classrooms but a habit that can be carried forward to the career. It is quite disturbing to be in a meeting with others who are too pre-occupied to pay attention to the content of a meeting and then expect others to fill them in. Worse, they do not contribute to the meeting itself and then complain about the ineffectiveness of meetings. I believe that allowing the free use of mobile devices in classrooms creates a habit that will be carried forward and this is not to the benefit of the individual, fellow employees or employers.

Fri, Aug 26, 2011 Steve Kelman

Thanks for all these comments. I do have a few disagreements with the commenter who started saying that by my "own admission," student multitasking did not impair their performance in the classroom. That's not what I said -- I said it was unlikely to impair it enough that they would fail a course and not graduate. But my point was they would be likely to learn less and be less-effective in serving society. There is experimental evidence that multitasking impairs performance on each task. I agree with the commenters who state that we need to think about creative ways to use the Internet and other technology in the classroom, but this is a separate issue from students checking Facebook in class. Also, there has never been any suggestion that students are surreptiously filming classes; this has come up in no discussions at Harvard or elsewhere of which I am aware. Thanks all for the interesting comments!

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