Are laptops deceiving?

Sixty students, 21 laptops… Today I decided to sit at the very back of my class and see just how many students use their laptops and for what reasons. Professors think they’re taking notes when some of them are surfing the web. It can be bothersome sitting behind someone who’s on Facebook when you’re trying to focus on the class.

I noticed that 15 out of the 21 classmates using laptops were taking notes, while six were online. However, some of those taking notes were also checking the Internet every now and then, looking at their Facebook page, checking their e-mails, or finishing an assignment for a different class. This can be quite distracting to people who are sitting near them. It doesn’t really make sense to me to attend class if you’re going to tune out and surf the web. I don’t think students are attending class for free Wi-Fi.

My own unscientific survey shows most people use laptops for note taking, but there are some who use it for personal reasons. It’s a lot easier for students to get away with messing around on their laptops than plugging in their iPods or texting friends. Maybe the fact that most professors post their PowerPoint’s on D2L dissuades some students from taking notes. Nonetheless, laptops can be a very useful academic tool as long as they’re not a distraction.

What do you think about laptops in class?

16 thoughts on “Are laptops deceiving?

  1. K. Simonds says:

    Thank you for your post/comments. I’m an instructor at PSU and have often wished I could be at the front and back of the classroom simultaneously so as to see what my students are really doing on their laptops. In my class, you may not use a laptop unless you come to speak to me during office hours with your specific request. Some students feel that my policy is unfair; though to the point of your blog post, the students watching the Blazers/Mavericks playoff Game #4 rather than participating in the class discussion were rather distracting.

    • S. Theo Burke says:

      Why don’t you just walk briskly to the rear of your classroom at random times, still lecturing, and see for yourself what they’re doing? If you walk quickly, they won’t ALL have time to “bury the evidence.”

      There is no reason to tolerate folks watching a Blazer game during class. You should have probably asked those students to leave for the day; as a bare minimum, turn off their devices for the rest of the period.

      You’re entitled to a firm policy, and this student expects a firm policy from his teachers. I have one teacher who limits laptop usage to the rear row of the classroom, and if the rear row is full, “you don’t get to use your laptop that day.”

      • W. Leaf Zuk says:

        I’m an older student and I like to use my laptop in classes…
        I really appreciate professors posting their powerpoints online. I use the speakers notes section and write my notes there as the professor is lecturing. I also always sit as close to the front as possible as I find my learning is better when I do.

        I’ve also made use of looking up terms or references in class when I’ve not understood something, not had experience or knowledge of it, or just wish to mark it for further reading.

        I’ve had the experience of seeing other’s using their laptops for other things and if I’ve found it distracting I’ve been unsure how to approach that.

  2. S. Theo Burke says:

    A recent report on the PBS News Hour interviewed students at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), where the allowance of technology in the classroom is extremely liberal, and of course the students claimed that they should be allowed to do what they want, and that they can “handle” multi-tasking (still learn while multi-tasking).
    Then the report cut to a researcher at Stanford University who is measuring that claim in a study. Using MRI scans of the brain while subjects were given simultaneous assignments (multi-tasking), subjects of all ages retained info considerably worse when multi-tasking than when measured doing one task at a time.
    Scientific proof, folks. You can’t really multitask and learn well. Your laptop or iPad should be on note-taking; or off (and in the back of the classroom). Don’t even think of looking at the other devices.

  3. Sarah lynn says:

    I respect that you find laptops bothersome in class, but the thing is, I’m a student who uses a notebook primarily and I’m still tuned out sometimes anyway. It may or may not have to do with how much I like the class or how much a certain topic interests me, but the matter of the fact is, if students want to tune you out then they were going to find a way to do it anyway. When I do bring my laptop to class, it’s usually because the class is long or traditional notes fill up like five pages in my notebook. I can’t access the internet on my laptop because the wifi and I have issues with each other, so I’m usually paying attention. But that doesn’t meant there’s a zillion other ways to distract myself from you, if you were the teacher in this situation: cellphone, other homework in my notebook, writing for enjoyment in my notebook, making lists of things to do later, iTunes, mp3 players; heck, other people around me, etc.

    Also, it’s hard to legitimately demonize laptops because most teachers assign papers that are meant to be written from a computer. We’re encouraged to use our laptops to our advantage and to produce literary masterpieces for teachers this way. Telling us it’s acceptable outside of class but not inside of class is like telling someone to use their indoor voice-they stop shouting for a while and then dismiss what you said.

    If laptops bother you then ban them from class unless a student has special needs. Otherwise, you just need to face the facts that students who are distracted now by laptops weren’t going to pay much attention anyway. Our world is a very technologically distracting place anymore, and that doesn’t magically disappear once you enter the classroom. I apologize that we students have TADD (tecnology attention deficit disorder), but that’s just the way things are right now.

  4. mistresswydow says:

    I am a student at PSU, and I use my laptop for note taking as well as tuning out every once in a while. I will admit, in some of my classes, I use my laptop to keep my mind active. Lecture classes can make me zone out, not because the topic is dull, but because a two hour lecture makes my eye lids heavy; multi-tasking keeps me on task and paying attention better than not having it.

    I always sit in the back of my classes because of my mobility device, and I too have seen the laptops in my classes stray onto the internet and such. However, I have also seen students who read novels through class, students who have books and homework out for other subjects, and students who make no pretense about sleeping through class. At least the majority of students with laptops are able to multi-task and work a little on the subject at hand.

  5. Jesse says:

    So laptops are distracting? Anyone doing anything other than taking notes is almost too much to handle and you can’t help but look at them and their laptop… I guess we should ask students to put on uniforms as well, lest some stray guy/girl distract you with their revealing summer clothing. We should also ask people with unnatural hair colors to tone it down so they aren’t distracting either.

    Seriously though, you honestly can’t ignore other people? You literally have the power to just NOT LOOK. So a kid is watching the Blazers’ game? Good for him…if that’s how he chooses to spend his class time then so be it. Its his tuition and his grade will probably reflect his choice.

    If you’re having a classroom discussion that everyone needs to be involved in…call them out if they’re being openly distracting. If they aren’t, simply don’t give them points for that discussion. If the discussion isn’t worth points and they’re simply missing an educational opportunity…then its on THEM.

    Someone who is being loud, rude, obnoxious, or otherwise openly distruptive in class is a problem. Someone who is sitting quietly on their laptop watching (with no sound that anyone can hear) something or doing something else is NOT bothering you. Random lights and movement on a 14″-17″ laptop screen are NOT a distraction to most adults. Most of us face more distraction than that out of the big glass “monitors” called windows in the classroom.

    I pay nearly $400-$500 a class (not counting fees, books, and such) and so if I make the conscious choice to spend a little time working on other things, surfing the ‘net, or anything else..that’s my prerogative. Your inability to focus on the class because you can’t stop watching what I’m doing is YOUR problem. How do you manage to drive/bike to school with so many “distractions” to steal your miniscule attention span away from what you’re doing?

    And yes, I realize you all pay the same $400 – $500 for the same classes and you want them to be as informative as possible…but someone else looking at Facebook three or more feet away from you is NOT hampering your ability to just look at the board/professor/etc.

    • W. Leaf Zuk says:

      I respectfully disagree…
      Moving images on a screen in an otherwise primarily stationary space is intentionally distracting, hence the reason most of us have them in our houses. Also, some people are simply not able to tune things out of their vision due to numerous factors including, but not limited to brain function, disorders, training, culture, etc.

      I appreciate it when people who wish to spend significant portions of class-time doing non-class related tasks sit toward the rear allowing those who wish to be engaged in the class atmosphere to sit in the front.

      Individuals will choose to pay attention, not pay attention, or mix their time in the classroom and technology will be part of that; we need to find functional middle-grounds.

    • AStephens says:

      Honesty – I find the typing distracting and it makes it hard for me to focus on the notes.

      For me it has nothing to do with other people not paying attention – they can do what they want. But that loud, pound-pound-pounding on a keyboard makes it difficult for me to pay attention.

      I don’t think laptops should be banned, I would just like to see a little common courtesy to fellow classmates by the laptop users.

  6. Sarah says:

    I earned my undergraduate degree at PSU and now I’m in grad school in SoCal. I’ve seen the use of laptops in the classroom rise over the years and I agree that it can be distracting. More than half of the students in one of my classes use laptops to check facebook a significant portion of the time in class. I only bring my laptop if I need to do a presentation with Power Point or to help me work on a group project with other students (such as needing the use of the Internet, creating a Power Point together, etc). I try to avert my eyes and try not to look at the rapidly shuffling pictures on people’s facebook pages in the rows in front of me, but it is still a work in progress and a distraction. At least there are some students that use their laptops to take notes and other things related to the class.

  7. Michelle says:

    As an adult student, I agree that laptops are distracting and disrespectful. I gain much more from classes in which the instructor takes a firm stance on laptops.. nothing worse than seeing someone Facebook page or listening to their keys clack while the type an email during a video.

    I also respect the fact that we all “pay” to attend class so I proactively choose to avoid anyone with a laptop that I fear will be distracting to me. If that requires me moving desk to avoid the distraction , so be it. I paid my tuition as well and I am in the class to focus on the lecture, not to babysit someone else. We are expected to be adults and we should act accordingly.

  8. Emilie Wyqued says:

    Yes. If people want to pay $15,000 a year to the college to browse Facebook and look at porn (this was actually an issue in a business class where computers were then disallowed – I transfered because I record the lecture and take notes on a computer) then let them. It means I pass the class and I get the job. To take computers, iPods, and iPads out of the classroom is to deny the technological advances that benefit this society, and to throw us behind the fold about 2 decades. I change classes once a professor tells me I can’t have my iPad. If it becomes a school thing…well I suppose I will just take my tuition elsewhere.

    If it is distracting to another student, move; there is nothing that is keeping you glued to your seat.

  9. Jen says:

    I think texting and the constant chatting in the back row in more annoying than a laptop in the class…I have a class right now that has a group of students who text each other and giggle throughout the whole lecture… That to me says why are you even here? Since 90% of the time they have no clue as to what was required of them… Other then that keep the laptops since most of us use them for what we are supposed to do…

  10. Lainey says:

    I have found that laptops are a mixed deal. They are a total distraction for those that aren’t using them for class purposes, it is natural for the eye to track movement and when you see it out of the corner of your eye it takes you off what’s important in class.

    I do however like to use them to take notes as I can type 4x faster than I write so I’m able to get all the information down. This term I chose not to carry my lap top around due to weight and like another person said above, I only bring it when I need it to work on a project with a group, the rest of the time I use the labs on campus.

    If someone is going to use their laptops for anything other than taking notes, they should be required to sit in the back of the room so they aren’t a distraction to those that are around them.

  11. Amey Harden says:

    If I were to create a drinking game based on an average class at PSU, one item would be when the prof mentions _________ book by _______________. “You should check this book out.. It’s got a really interesting…. ” I’d say this happened a few times every class session I was ever in.

    As a student who zones out in class, it was often helpful for me to then google the book the prof was talking about, adding it to a virtual library, and checking it’s availability at the community or campus library. This was more effective than writing it down in my notebook only to maybe go home and look it up later.

    Honestly, there are so many things instructors say that spark tangents/ideas in my brain, surfing the net is more like interactive note taking. Before wi-fi, my notes would be a lot of questions I had related to the lectures I was hearing, but hardly followed up on. Now I can follow up on them instantly.

  12. Arjay Ercolani says:

    Anyone who wants to use a laptop in class should feel free to do so at the back of the class, this is already a university policy. To students who don’t use them and tune into the professor diligently, the blacking on the keyboard is what becomes most distracting. I have had to deal with harassment from laptop users who were miffed that I verbalized my distraction and enforced the University policy – about coming to blows with one arrogant sob just yesterday. Anyone who is bothered by someone not obeying the laptop policy can file a complaint with the learning disabilities center as the laptop usage is a distraction to those with ADD or ADHD, or anyone intent on truely garnering every bit of information from the lecturer.

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