Law in the Internet Society

In Students' Backpacks, Laptops Replace Paper and Pens

-- By AlexandraRosen - 30 Oct 2015

I consider whether the use of laptops in classrooms is aiding the evolution towards human ignorance in the machine’s fight to control the human race.

Laptops have become standard equipment in higher education, replacing paper and pens in students’ backpacks. In this new era of “ubiquitous computing,” there is an ongoing debate as to whether laptop use in classrooms hinders or helps student learning. While the increasing interconnectedness of society and computing is often portrayed as a positive step to giving us a more efficient future—e.g. with computers, an individual can perform numerous tasks at one time and, thanks to advents in software, can perform each task more quickly—the current structure of college classrooms provide strong evidence to the contrary. However, if we take this opportunity to accept our reality—digital technology is and will continue to be present in most aspects of our lives including our education, both in and out of the classroom—we can then take the progressive step and ask: how can we take advantage of this reality?

In order to figure how to best utilize “ubiquitous computing,” we must first understand its potential costs and benefits.

Laptops hinder classroom learning.

1. Laptops are distracting to the user

Laptops enable and promote multitasking. Human attention and capacity to process information is inherently limited and selective. According to Broadbent’s theory of selective attention, “there is a limited processing channel that information is filtered through from a sensory processing stage on its way to a short-term memory store. . . When this channel becomes overloaded," new information coming in can cause attentional shifts and distraction. Numerous studies have found that “[a]lmost without exception performance on one or both task suffers a decrement as a direct result of having to perform the two tasks simultaneously.” Thus, in the current era of “ubiquitous computing,” where students carry laptops rather than paper, laptop use promotes multitasking in the classroom which is a decrement to students’ learning.

2. Laptop use is distracting to the user's peers

Laptop use by certain students not only disrupts the individual user’s learning, it also indirectly effects the user’s surrounding peers’ learning. In a 2013 study by Sana, Weston & Cepeda, the experimenters found that laptop use in the classroom impaired comprehension of the laptop user and that of his classroom peers seated in view of the user engaged in multitasking on his laptop.

While it is one thing to choose to impede your own learning by using a laptop in class, the decision to do so unfairly puts all of your peers at a disadvantage as well, hindering the entire classroom’s learning. Many argue that this isn’t a new phenomenon specific to classroom laptop use. Before laptops, there were other distractions in the classroom—e.g. passing notes, doodling on notebooks, talking and trying to finish homework assigned from other classes. Hence, laptop use is not creating new or additional distractions, it is merely passing notes in modern form. However, this argument ignores the reality that laptops are different and are designed to grab our attention. The vertical orientation of laptops and "visual nature of laptops, along with pop-ups, instant messages, movement and lighting of text, and even things like low-battery warning make laptops inherently" more distracting to fellow students than traditional notebooks.

3. Efficiency gains of laptop use in the classroom is largely an illusion: laptops create distractions and actively hinder learning

The use of laptops to take notes in the classroom creates an illusion of hyper-productivity. As compared to students who handwrite notes in the classroom, students who type notes on a laptop take quantitatively more notes and those notes tend to more precisely capture the course material. While these observations appear to promote a rather advantageous take on the use of laptops in classrooms, the 2014 Mueller and Oppenheimer study (people remember lectures better when they’ve taken handwritten notes, rather than typed ones) analyzes whether this perceived increase in efficiency of learning is merely an illusion.

The Mueller and Oppenheimer study, "the Pen is Mightier than the Keyboard," was conducted in three parts: (1) students watched a video of a lecture and took notes either by hand or on laptops, (2) spent 30 minutes on another mental task, and then (3) took a quiz on the video lecture content. The results of the study showed that people who took handwritten notes generally did better on the quiz than those who took notes on a laptop. Mueller and Oppenheimer explained their results by positing the following: those who “wrote out their notes by hand had a stronger conceptual understanding and were more successful in applying and integrating the material than those who took notes with their laptops” because "taking notes by hand requires different types of cognitive processing than taking notes on a laptop."

The intuition that typing notes is relatively mindless is true. You may be able to type faster than you can write but faster does not mean more effective—typing notes instead of writing notes inhibits your comprehension of lecture materials. Furthermore, I would argue that unless people "actively" acknowledge that "typing is more efficient" is a fallacy, society as a whole will suffer. Taking notes by hand "forces the brain to engage in some heavy 'mental lifting'" that keeps our minds sharp—the best defense against computers’ fight to take control of the human race.

Next steps...

Despite continued commentary and evidence challenging the continued invasion of laptops into classrooms (particularly higher education classrooms), the reality is that the prevalence of laptops and similar personal computing technology is growing. In light of what appears to be the inevitable, how (and what) can we change to make the existence of laptops conducive to comprehensive learning in classrooms? First, we should work to create software that makes it easier and more conducive to take effective notes in class. Second, educators should adapt to changing times and cater the structure of their classes to positively integrate laptop use into classroom activities. Third, students should figure out how to use laptops to their advantage inside (and outside) of classrooms. Laptops and digital technology do pose significant benefits to students including: to students including: providing up-to-date information and resources, peer interaction and feedback, valuable and customizable "tools" such as the ability to record lectures and re-listen later on at their own pace, and teaching students how to be productive and efficient in the real world--where digital technology is omnipresent.

I find confusing the connection between the analysis, which seems directed at supporting the inference that personal workstations harm learning in classrooms, and the conclusion, which states without supporting the conclusion that teachers can change this by nmaking classes, in some unspecified way, different.

After teaching in four different decades, I do not believe that the learning styles of students have converged at all. Some students need to take notes. Some students, afforded the opportunity to make sound recordings and play them back, will do better than they would do by taking notes. I never took notes of any form in classes: my memory served. By the time I was 20, it had not only served, it had grown more capacious and more powerful at the reception, analysis and memorization of spoken material than any other memory I've ever met. I never use either a notebook or a laptop computer, let alone a smartass phone or other personal surveillance device, during professional meetings or conversations outside my office. At most I make essential notes about critical commitments, promises, or contacts on a 3x5 card.

Naturally most of my students can 't and shouldn't work this way, and I wouldn't try to make them, even though I know that after five years' struggle they would be immensely more powerful as lawyers, readers, thinkers.

So if the goal is to make students change their learning styles, I am doubtful both as to theory and as to practicality. If on the other hand, we agree—and we do—that most students use digital technology very badly, why would we adjust the teaching to encourage the mistakes? Surely a third way presents itself?

* Edits made, second draft above, as of 12/22/2015

  • Thank you for your feedback. I think I am still learning how to use digital technology to help, rather than hurt, my learning. Although, I had failed to consider how my inability to co-exist with digital technology in the classroom will hinder me in my future career and, forgot to consider all of the advantages--even I find--using digital technology in education (like spell check, outlining and re-organizing information, presentations, and surely, as you reminded me, listening to or re-watching lectures (which has been a huge advantage for me throughout my learning).

I honestly don't see the problem. Professors are not entitled to their students' attention. If students are not interested in the material being taught at a particular point in time, they should have the freedom to redirect their thought-flow to activities that better serve their needs. If Columbia law professors have a problem with that, then perhaps they should reform their curriculum such that it better relates to the lives of future lawyers. If that task is too difficult for them, they are always free to find another occupation and stop cashing the checks. In a society where students are paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for an education bearing an increasingly questionable relationship to our future careers, the refusal to pay attention is a potential instrument of resistance that serves to pressure planet-sized egos into changing their ways.

Unless the contention is that there is something online that is preventing students from behaving as economically rational agents, in which case I would agree, but would be interested in knowing what you think that something is.


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r7 - 23 Jan 2016 - 18:26:13 - ShayBanerjee
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