The Laptop Debate: Computers in the College Classroom

Find out whether computers in the classroom enhance or detract from education.

The University of Chicago banned all Internet access from classrooms in the hopes that students will use their laptops just to take notes.
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With technology an extension of our everyday lives, it’s difficult to determine where to draw the line when it comes to technology in the classroom.

As computers have become “smarter,” technology is being touted as a tool to revolutionize pedagogy.

But technology in the college classroom has taken a turn in the wrong direction with students using their laptops to surf the Web, chat on Instant Messengers, read magazines or play games.

This leads to the question: Is technology in the classroom a tool or a hindrance?

The Pros

Proponents of classroom technology are revolutionaries in their own right. They believe that if used properly, technology can be a useful tool in supplementing class lectures and other activities.

Some colleges have turned to LectureTools, an interactive program that students login to on their laptops during class that allows them to:

  • Take notes directly to class slides.
  • Anonymously ask the teacher’s assistant a question during a lecture.
  • Rate their understanding of each slide.

The Cons

College professors want students’ undivided attention, and they don’t always get that when computers are allowed in the classroom.

There are so many distractions available to students with a laptop that professors can’t be sure that students with a computer are paying attention. The Internet can and does interfere with class discussions and instruction.

A 2006 study by Carrie Fried at Winona State University concluded that students who are allowed to use their laptops with Internet access in the classroom spend roughly 25 percent of the time doing things unrelated to the course.

Some professors who oppose computers in the classroom believe that note-taking on a laptop encourages word-for-word transcription. That compares unfavorably with writing notes by hand, in which the student has to think about what she is writing, how to organize it and what information is most important. That latter is more of an active task that helps students remember the covered material.

Teach Naked

Computers in the classroom is such a heated debate that a movement called “teach naked” is gaining momentum in higher education. Teaching naked refers to running a classroom without the aid of technology.

The idea comes from the thought that professors today are too reliant on technology to supplement lectures. A survey conducted by the British Educational Research Journal supports this idea by finding that 59 percent of students report that at least half their lectures were boring, and the culprit is PowerPoint.

Students are tired of listening to professors stand at the front of the room, reading off a screen. Courses with more interaction such as seminars and group discussions are considered more interesting.

What Are Colleges Doing About It?

Most colleges would agree that technology in the classroom is here to stay in some capacity. Where they differ is that each institution has different rules and regulations pertaining to the extent that it will be used.

The University of Chicago, which has a historically liberal approach to many of its policies, has banned all Internet access from classrooms. This was done in the hopes that students will use their laptops for what they are intended: note-taking.

On the contrary, other schools embrace technology in the classroom. Buffalo State University has a Classroom Technology Equipment center with teleconferencing tools, DVD players, wireless microphones and overhead projects.

Rather than use technology in the class, some teachers suggest using it outside the classroom. A professor at Southern Methodist College records lectures and interviews for the students to listen to on their computers before class. During class they are able to apply critical thinking to what they learned in a class discussion. This professor said that utilizing this technique has led to students being more prepared and more engaged in the classroom.

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