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Editorial: Laptops and Learning, or Not

Given the ubiquity of laptop computers and digital tablets on college campuses, you could assume they’re essential tools for learning. Like most tools, though, they have their time and place, which may not be during class or in the lecture hall.

Dan Rockmore makes this point persuasively in a recent  N ew Yorker  blog posting. Rockmore is no Luddite. He’s a professor of mathematics and computer science at Dartmouth, with a particular interest in “machine learning.” In other words, his professional life revolves around computers and computing. Yet he’s deeply skeptical about the value of laptops in the traditional classroom, whether for note-taking or other activities. He was pleased to learn that many of his colleagues in computer science apparently share his skepticism.

Rockmore relates the story of a faculty friend who had an epiphany after he looked up from his lectern in a programming class and “saw, yet again, an audience of laptop covers, the flip sides of which were engaged in online shopping or social-media obligations rather than in the working out of programming examples. In a Network-inspired Peter Finch moment, he quickly changed the screen of his lecture presentation to a Reddit feed and watched some soccer highlights. That got everyone’s attention.”

“Ban computers in the classroom?” asked Rockmore’s friend in an email to Dartmouth faculty. For Rockmore, the question was moot, because he already prohibits them. He instituted what he calls an “electronic etiquette policy” after it became common practice for students to bring laptops to school. Laptops aren’t much help for computational notes or for theoretical discussions, he figured. Moreover, the temptation for distraction is high.

Rockmore says he acted mainly on instinct, but acknowledges the scientific evidence that digital devices distract the mind, lessen concentration and impede memory. He cites a 2003 Cornell University study in which half the class was allowed unfettered access to their computers during a lecture while the other half was asked to keep laptops closed. The disconnected students performed better on a post-lecture quiz, regardless of the duration of computer use. Other studies confirm that students tend to consolidate and retain more information when taking notes by hand.

Still, research investigating the effect of laptop usage on student learning is slim and inconclusive. A 2010 study by the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching at the University of Michigan suggests that the impact of laptops and other mobile devices can be both good and bad. On the positive side, students who use laptops for interactive classroom discussions tend to pose more questions and engage more with their professors. On the negative side, laptops that aren’t being used for a specific classroom task divert students from the lesson.

People associate computing devices with play and socializing, not necessarily with formal learning, observes Rockmore. That may change as more and more young children routinely use laptops and tablets for instructional purposes. Even so, the many uses of laptops — for reading, shopping, connecting with friends — may hamper their effectiveness as a classroom tool. 

If that proves to be the case, it wouldn’t be the first time a technological innovation failed to fulfill its educational promise. Once upon a time, there was hope that something called television would revolutionize schooling. Instead it evolved as a medium to entertain the masses rather than to instruct them. Similarly, laptops and tablets may ultimately disappoint those who believe such devices have the potential to radically alter pedagogy, which in some respects hasn’t changed all that much since the days of Aristotle. We wouldn’t be surprised if more teachers, whether in college, high school or pre-school, ban them in the service of learning.