Widgets Magazine


Laptops and classrooms don’t mix

The ubiquity of laptops in classrooms troubles me. You have to understand, I am like a centenarian when it comes to technology, but I think the point is still poignant. I think we need to all admit that nobody pays full attention to a speaker when they have their laptop in front of them. That type of self-control just does not exist anymore.

The first objection will be that glancing at emails once or twice during lecture does not actually interrupt a person’s attention. Essentially, as long as you are not browsing memebase, reddit, 4chan or some other asinine expedient of time, then you are okay to take notes. I think this is a gross misconception.

First, the vast majority of people I have seen are glued to the screen perusing a website, especially in classes that lack visual aids. What I have seen is that when a person is not occupied with visual stimulation at the front of the room, they generate that stimulus themselves. For a lot of students, it is not just a quick look at emails. They are surfing the web, something that could be done at home.

Second, periodically checking your email during class is still a problem. What you are saying is that those things are on your mind. Facebook, email, texts, all have some grip on your attention, even if you think it is minimal. The problem with multi-tasking is that you end up doing two things poorly, rather than one well. Just because you are generating notes does not mean the talk has significance for you. Lectures, especially in the humanities, require active mental engagement. I often scribble notes about my notes during lectures, because even the information fed to us by professors requires scrutiny. You should not be a passive receptacle to information.

Lastly, web-surfing or text messaging during talks is simply rude. I was in a relatively small lecture class, with roughly thirty people, where the boy in front of me was blatantly texting on his phone the entire time. The speaker saw this and, at least for an instant, was visibly perturbed. He was a guest speaker asked to come talk to us about a topic of interest. That is not the way I was taught to receive a guest, and it certainly does not reflect well on the student body.

If you truly feel a lecturer is incompetent, or that his lecture is wasting your time, then leave. It is better to leave then to stay on and mindlessly record notes you could grab from a friend. There is no need to keep up the charade of paying attention when you are not.

About Chris Herries

Chris Herries is a sophomore majoring in Latin. His interests include rugby, crossfit, weiqi, and public service. Please shoot him an email if you have an issues with his articles.
  • BitterGradGuy

    YES! While we’re at it, let’s also stop browsing your email when you’re at a meeting. I’m sure that everything I tell undergrads goes into one ear and out the other.

  • Rise Up

    The consensus among educators is quite clear in this regard. It is time that Stanford professors stand up to inertial forces and demand that students shut down their laptops/tablets/phones in class!

  • In Accordance

    I agree wholeheartedly (although I will argue that lectures in mathematics and science ought to require just as much mental attention as lectures in the humanities). Additionally, studies show that the time it takes to switch between tasks when multitasking takes a significant toll on productivity. Even people who aren’t surfing the web who decide to briefly check e-mail or intersperse another activity with paying attention are ineffectively spending their own time, in addition to being disrespectful to lecturers, guest speakers, and other students distracted by glowing screens.

  • Steven

    I stand in the back of the HumBio core lectures every day, and I notice which students are
    diligently taking notes, and which aren’t. A good 90% of students who use laptops are solely in their note-taking program the great majority of the time, just to offer some counter-evidence.

    And as a student with slow, messy handwriting, there’s no way I could have done as well in school if I were forced to hand-write my notes. Having them backed up, organized, with links to relevant readings and extra material are other benefits of typed notes. You can also share your notes and capture, interesting musings, photos, video, and audio much more effectively with the help of a laptop or tablet.

    Those who don’t have the discipline to stay focused will have to learn one way or another that they need to use their laptops effectively, switch to hand-written notes, or simply do poorly in class. I don’t think the discipline to stay on task is beyond our reach, but it may need some practice and strong intention. I don’t really see students in the next 10 or 100 years moving back towards hand written notes in any great number.

  • John Driscoll

    In the 1970s during my undergrad tenure at Stanford, some of the more renowned scholars would refuse to lecture if a student was reading a newspaper. A favorite Prof (who is still around and who I will not embarrass) used to commence his lecture by stating what topics he intended to cover and would finish by saying “And I will start my lecture as soon as the newspaper is put away”. One dreads to think of worse indignities in public assemblies unleashed by the genie of modern technology … beeping, rings, texting, surfing the net/Facebook, taking candid photos. On the other side of the lectern you have presentation software. Anyone who throws up a Powerpoint with slides of bullet points which they read back to their audience cannot be a serious scholar. One might almost excuse rudeness or lethargy from the audience. Back in the day, great teachers spoke well and did not need clicks, slides or custom animation. Students probably paid more attention. .. John Driscoll ’76, Singapore