Doing away with in-class Web surfing

Facebook stalking in class is no longer an option for a growing number of Yale students.

In an attempt to encourage students to pay attention to lectures and to facilitate class discussions, at least two dozen professors and teaching assistants have banned, or at least discouraged, laptop use since classrooms were outfitted with wireless in 2006. Despite the inconvenience the policy poses of taking notes by hand, many of the professors said in interviews that they have not received any complaints about their no-laptops policies, and a handful of them even said they received positive feedback.

Students make excessive use of laptops in class — a situation remedied by laptop bans in some Yale classes.
Philip Hu
Students make excessive use of laptops in class — a situation remedied by laptop bans in some Yale classes.

It’s no secret that students using laptops often multi-task in class — answering e-mails, instant messaging, reading the news and occasionally even taking notes.

Since “it’s not practical for Yale to delineate wireless classroom by classroom or hour by hour” — as Chuck Powell, the senior director of Academic Media and Technology for Yale’s Information Technology Services, put it — professors are taking matters into their own hands. (Yale wireless currently covers more than 80 percent of campus, barring Old Campus and a few buildings, such as Hendrie Hall.)

Five professors interviewed said laptops put up a literal barrier between students and the professor, hampering discussions and a sense of community within the classroom.

“I want to interact with the students. I want them to be paying attention,” said political science and religious studies professor Andrew March, who banned laptops from his Spring 2008 seminar, “Islamic Political Thought.” “It is impossible, even with the best intentions, to stay off e-mail, the Internet, Solitaire.”

Other professors who expressed similar desires to connect with their students said their no-laptop policy was for students’ benefit.

English and political science lecturer Mark Oppenheimer ’96 GRD ’03, who is teaching “Classics of Political Journalism” this semester, said his policy against laptops is no different from any other classroom regulation a professor might have — such as no swearing and timeliness.

In discussion sections, laptops also make it difficult to read the teaching fellows’ or other students’ body language, said Robin Morris GRD ’11, a TF for “Terrorism in America 1865-2001” this semester.

“By looking at students’ faces during discussion, I can look for signs of confusion, disagreement, boredom, excitement — all signals that help me determine my next move in the classroom,” she said.

Taking notes by hand not only eliminates the noise of typing — often distracting in a small seminar — but also forces students to filter information, instead of passively taking notes verbatim, Oppenheimer added.

School of Forestry and Environmental Studies professor Shimon Anisfeld, who banned laptop use from his two courses this spring, “Water Resource Management” and “Organic Pollutants in the Environment,” even used a comic strip to illustrate his point that laptop use takes away from the atmosphere of the classroom. The strip, which Anisfield showed his class the first day, depicts a student having an online conversation in class — a humorous exaggeration of the consequences of classroom laptop use.

Since enacting the policy, professors said they have seen levels of classroom interaction and grades improve.

“I have seen marvelous results,” March said. “I was ambivalent at the beginning, but I would never go back to allowing laptops.”

And at least some students are warming up to the idea, too.

In his course evaluations for “Eastern Europe Since 1914” in Fall 2007, history professor Timothy Snyder asked students how they felt about his policy on laptops. He received unanimously positive responses. One student even asked why more Yale classes don’t enact a ban, he recalled.

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