Laptops and Luddites

Reevaluating computer policies will allow for a more engaged classroom

We have all seen it. That person checking their email in lecture. Or creeping Facebook in section. Or trawling the Web for good deals during seminar. Now, some professors are taking notice, and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences may follow suit.

Last week, The Crimson reported on the status of laptop use at the College. Right now, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences has no computer policy, allowing instructors to set their own rules about electronic devices. Yet this could soon change, as the issue of students using the internet during lecture has become a staple of faculty gatherings. Already, faculty members across the departments are placing bans on laptop use, deciding that “at the moment…arguments in favor of disallowing [laptops] outweigh” the positives.

Professors should be fed up, and we agree that something has to be done. A few instructors have forbidden laptops entirely. We think that is a non-starter, and we find such an approach paternalistic and impractical. Our generation never learned shorthand, and today’s Harvard students take notes on computers or tablets. Mandating that everyone hand-write lecture notes would be problematic, especially for people who write down their instructor’s every word. Further, it would arbitrarily disadvantage those whose handwriting is on the slower end of the spectrum.

Yet there are other ways to minimize distraction in class. One possibility, mentioned by some faculty, is to turn off internet access during lecture. This would give electronic note-takers all the leeway they need, while eliminating the specter of online distraction.

On the other hand, seminars and humanities-based sections are a different matter. Instructors and teaching fellows should have a right to restrict the use of laptops in these classes. Here, students are not meant to be stenographers, but rather active participants in discussion. Dialogue and repartee require an intimate learning environment, an aim hindered by the presence of electronic devices. We realize that many courses assign hundreds of pages of reading material per week and that some readings will have to be accessed electronically to save money and paper. For this reason, some seminars and sections allow Kindles or iPads, while others permit laptops, guarding against Facebook and Gmail through spot checks.


We lament the delinquent behavior that laptops enable, and this situation must be remedied. However, an engaged classroom is not irreconcilable with computers and other electronics, which are valuable educational tools that enhance the educational experience of many students. We must not let this make Luddites of us all.