Arts & Culture / Mosaic / April 15, 2010

All plugged in: on Knox’s laptop controversy

For many students, using laptops in the classroom has many benefits. Laptops allow students to be sustainable by viewing electronic copies of articles for class, to type notes faster than they can write and to utilize the Internet to supplement the discussion. However, not all students are always so responsible with their laptop use.

“I think most of the time when people have laptops in class, they’re probably not doing what they’re supposed to be doing,” said senior Tasha Coryell.

Coryell understands that sometimes students run out of printing pages or want to use online resources in class, but many times she has seen fellow students using social networking sites during class.

On the other hand, Professor of Philosophy Brandon Polite said via e-mail that he allows laptops in his classroom and “noticed no additional benefits or hindrances to either him or the class,” when laptops are used.

Senior Marc Dreyfuss said he thought laptops should not be required or banned from classrooms.

“Students are responsible for doing whatever they think will most further their own education,” Dreyfuss said.

Starting winter term, Professor of history Konrad Hamilton specifically said, “No laptop computers, cell phones, recording devices, blackberries or any other electronic devices are allowed during class.” He makes an exception for students with special needs. However, average students are not allowed to use electronics during class.

“Over the last year, I’ve had some instances where students were using phones in class,” said Hamilton. “Most students I’ve had take notes with pen and paper.”

While cell phones were the problem, Hamilton decided to forbid all electronics from his classroom. In conversations with other professors, he learned that some students have been caught using the laptops and Internet inappropriately, distracting other students, and Hamilton wanted to prevent that situation.

Professor of history Catherine Denial said she does not encourage her students to use laptops, but she does not prohibit it either.

“For some students, laptops are a boon – I know that for students with learning disabilities or physical injuries that prevent them from taking notes by hand, laptops are of tremendous help in keeping up with the pace of the class,” said Denial via e-mail. “Still, I find that laptops are often a distraction. I’ve caught students checking and replying to e-mail more than once during class, and I’ve experienced students looking up the answers to questions rather than simply thinking my query through.”

If students use the laptop correctly, their education can be enhanced, Denial said. But others, such as those who use it for conversation during class time, are distracting themselves.

“I think there’s enormous value in unplugging for the 70 or 90 minutes of a class period and focusing everything on the people around you and the work at hand,” said Denial.

Hamilton echoed Denial’s concerns with students participation in class.

“We’re starting to get a generation of students who have always been multitasking,” said Hamilton. “What a lot of students are weak on now is the ability to focus.”

Another problem Hamilton finds with technology is that he feels students sometimes prioritize electronics over school supplies. Whereas Hamilton has heard complaints about not being able to buy textbooks, the same students are able to afford laptops, iPods and cell phones.

“To me, that’s a real misplacement of values,” said Hamilton. “[Students] know that in my classroom electronics aren’t necessary for the learning process.”

Hamilton recognizes that electronics can be helpful for students, but also feels that there are appropriate times and places for electronic use.

“Young people are developing their own critiques of appropriate electronic use,” said Hamilton, citing a recent song by Lady Gaga and Beyonce expressing their frustration for cell phone disruptions.

“I think its good practice for people to take notes with a pen and pencil,” said Hamilton. “It’s part of the learning process.”

In some courses, such as science or math courses, laptops can be helpful. Sophomore Katy Sutcliffe said she does not use laptops in her science classes but would if she had a touch screen to draw molecules. Math students also often use Mathematica and it can be helpful for them to have available during class.

Other students who take theoretical courses can use the Internet during class to find concrete, real-world examples explaining the theories.

However, for many classes, Coryell said, using a laptop does not make sense. This is true in discussion courses, when the student is responsible for participating in the dialogue, and not necessarily for taking notes in a lecture. Coryell, a creative writing major, has found little need for laptops in the classroom.

“I don’t think I’ve ever brought a laptop to class in my four years,” said Coryell.

Laura Miller

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