Standing at the back of a lecture hall, it is increasingly common to see the glare of laptop screens scattered around the room. While most of the students would likely claim to be taking notes, a peek over their shoulders is just as likely to reveal a quick WebMail session, a hand of Hearts or an AIM conversation.
As more and more students are ditching pens and paper for the ease of laptops, students and professors have mixed opinions about the role of computers in classrooms. Many students said they generally use their computers to facilitate quick note-taking, particularly in large lecture classes, but that they also like to have a source of distraction when the class material is boring. Although students said they have encountered professors who have laid ground rules restricting laptop use, most professors said they will let students decide for themselves how to best to use their laptops in class — at least for now.
History Department chair Paul Freedman said he allows students to bring computers to his classes, but he can imagine a point at which the number of students who use their laptops for other reasons could become “bothersome.” Still, he does not know whether this would lead him to institute a class-wide policy in a lecture. Freedman, who taught a Directed Studies course in the fall, said several students used their computers, but they did not seem to be distracted from the class discussion.
“In seminars, I have trouble believing that someone would play cards or get online or watch pornography,” Freedman said.
Jonathan Gordon ’10 said he likes to use his laptop to take notes but often surfs the Internet when there is a lull in the class. But he generally only uses his computer in large classes because professors and teaching assistants tend to get “annoyed” if students pull out their computers in a small group, he said. In fact, he said one of his TAs asked the first day that students keep their laptops away because there was no reason to have them out in class.
But Gordon said he does not think the issue is a problem that needs to be addressed by faculty or administration.
“Students can choose whether or not to go to classes and to what level they want to pay attention,” Gordon said.
English professor Fred Strebeigh said he recalls an incident when a visiting professor spoke to his seminar and the professor’s wife, who was sitting in the back of the classroom, told him later that his students were using the Internet rather than taking notes. But Strebeigh said when he sits in on classes taught by other professors, he has noticed that in most of the times that students are on the Internet, they are looking up information about the topic being discussed.
“Laptops involve a fascinating mix of note-taking advantage, research potential and distraction downside,” Strebeigh said. “I see enormous advantages mixed with sometimes evident disadvantages.”
Strebeigh said he has never instituted a policy about laptop use in his classes because he thinks if the course material is engaging and fast-paced enough, students will not have the time for distraction. He said if he notices a student losing focus, whether the student has a laptop or not, he tries to call on them to bring them back into the discussion.
“My sense is that a seminar should involve the investment and discussion of every single student in the room, that a fast seminar does that and that even students who are taking notes on their laptops will wind up contributing frequently and dynamically,” Strebeigh said.
Alexander Dominitz ’09 said he “started a trend” in some of his theater classes last year, when he began bringing his laptop to class. He said the central reason for using his laptop is that he can type much faster than he can write, but he also uses his computer to pull up notes from previous classes, share notes and information with friends and copy supplemental information from the Internet into his notes. Dominitz said he thinks students should be responsible enough by the time they come to college to pay attention in class.
“People have been passing notes since the birth of the school system,” Dominitz said. “I think that students by this point should be responsible enough to realize the importance of classroom time.”
Dominitz said he has been in several seminars in which professors have made comments to the class about laptop use. Just last week, he said, a professor in a residential college seminar told the class that their grades would be marked down without their knowledge if they were caught checking their e-mail during class.
But Dominitz said students who stray from their notes during class are often thinking ahead to the next meeting they have to attend or paper they have to write, not just looking at last weekend’s photo album on Facebook. Yale students are extremely busy, he said, and it should be up to them to be responsible for prioritizing their lives.
Even if students are taking notes, laptops can be more distracting than traditional notetaking methods. English professor Amy Bloom said while she does not have a strong opinion about the use of laptops in her classes, the noise of a keyboard can be irritating.
“The tap-tap-tap annoys me in a way that the scratch of a pen does not,” she said in an e-mail. “I’m sure in five more years, I won’t even notice.”
Jessica Fried ’09 said she does not use her laptop because it is too heavy to carry around from class to class and because she is very particular about the way she organizes her notes. But she said she sees a lot of people distracted during “boring” classes, though professors do not need to intervene in such cases because students are old enough to make decisions for themselves.
Neil Kalwani ’09 said he uses his laptop only in classes in which professors do not have a formal Powerpoint presentation. When professors do have them, Kalwani said, he likes to take notes directly on print-outs of the slides. While he said none of his professors in lecture courses have ever commented on the use of laptops during class, students would find a way to distract themselves from time to time during lecture whether or not they had their computers.
“If [students] didn’t bring their laptops, they’d probably be reading the YDN or doing Sudoku,” Kalwani said.