Off of Laptops, On Task?

Professors contemplate effects of personal computers in class

As Harvard embraces digital learning with the launch of online education platform EdX, professors in traditional Harvard classrooms are asking undergraduates to keep off of laptops and on task during class, hoping to eliminate the temptation to surf the Internet.

“I didn’t used to [ban laptops], but it just became clearer and clearer that it was sort of an open secret that everybody used their laptops and the Internet in ways we all know they do in class,” said Samuel Zipp, a visiting professor of history from Brown University. Zipp does not allow laptops in his course History 1450: “The United States Metropolis, 1945-2000.”

There is no College policy on the use of laptops in class, according to Jeff Neal, a spokesperson for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Instead, individual faculty members make their own policies.

But Alison Simmons, a professor of philosophy, said that more professors are discussing how to address the rise of laptop use in class.

“We’re all talking about it,” said Simmons. “You can’t go to a faculty meeting or a dinner party where it doesn’t come up.”

Simmons does not allow laptop use in lecture with exceptions for approved reasons, a policy she wrote last year. Though she acknowledges that there are benefits to having a laptop in class—the ability to look at texts that are available online, for example—Simmons said she instituted the laptop ban because they can be distracting, both because of the temptation to surf the Internet and from the sounds of other students typing.

Taking notes on a laptop might also cause students to focus on taking everything down instead of synthesizing concepts, she said.

“It’s not simple or straightforward, but at the moment, I think the arguments in favor of disallowing them outweigh [allowing them],” Simmons said.

Zipp said laptops can disrupt the connection between student and professor.

“I’m interested in creating a reciprocal relationship [with students], and sometimes that’s hard in a lecture as it stands,” Zipp said. “I think that the Internet makes it harder.”

Both Simmons and Zipp wondered what the impact would be on the classroom if instructors could turn off Internet access in their lectures so that students could take notes on their laptops without online distractions.

Some students think there is value in taking notes on laptops, despite the risk of distraction.

Henry J. Limitone ’16 said laptops should be allowed in lecture classes.

This fall as a student in Ethical Reasoning 22: “Justice,” Limitone starting taking notes on his laptop because he discovered he could not write quickly enough. A few weeks later when professor Michael J. Sandel told students they could not use their laptops, Limitone said he felt that it was a disadvantage.

“Inevitably, you’re going to have students who abuse [laptops],” Limitone said. “I don’t think professors should try and put rules in place that aim to make you a better student. We’re 18 years old, 19 years old—we should be able to make the right decision and not abuse the laptop in class.”

—Staff writer Madeline R. Conway can be reached at mconway@college.harvard.edu. Follow her on Twitter @MadelineRConway.

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