Amidst a changing technological landscape, students and professors at Yale have struggled to find the best way to integrate electronic devices into classrooms without disrupting the learning environment.
An online survey of current Yale undergraduates, conducted by the News last week, showed that 72 percent of students regularly use electronic devices, such as laptops and e-readers, during class, while only five percent never do so. While almost all 183 participants cited convenience and organization as reasons for using electronics, over a quarter said that devices were used as part of their course requirements. Still, there remains much debate about the advantages, disadvantages and appropriate usage of electronics in educational settings.
While 84 percent of participants said Yale professors accept the use of electronics during classes, professors interviewed gave a more nuanced opinion of the presence of laptops and iPads in their classrooms. Of eight professors, who represent a range of academic departments, seven generally allow the use of electronic devices during class, but all expressed reservations about the potential drawbacks of technology.
“Technology can be a great way for students immediately to delve more deeply into course content,” classics professor Andrew Johnston said. “But the ever-present siren song of Facebook and Instagram can be hard to resist.
Several professors, such as economics professor Pinelopi Goldberg, said they do not forbid the use of technology because they want to treat students like adults.
But modern art professor Sebastian Zeidler noted that he finds electronics distracting, and he does not know whether his students are paying attention in class. However, he said he allows electronics because he does not want to seem dictatorial.
Other professors see the use of electronics as inevitable and instead try to attract students’ attention by making class more interactive.
“If I can’t outcompete their iPads and phones, I better pick up my game,” classics and history professor Noel Lenski said. “So electronics in class are a challenge, not an abomination.”
Mathematics professor Roger Howe said he tries to make electronics counterproductive by conducting classes to resemble conversations, so that students need to pay attention.
Students also seem to be aware of the distractions electronics can cause in classrooms, with 73 percent of participants replying that online distractions during classes are “serious.” One participant reported that laptops and iPads are incredibly distracting, and the presence of too many electronics would sap the interest out of any seminar.
A few professors have adopted more drastic measures.
History professor Paul Kennedy said he banned anything other than hand note-taking for his lecture course in order to make his students better note-takers. Economics professor Dan Keniston bans laptops in his class, but allows the use of iPads and Kindles as textbook replacements.
Both students and professors said the use of electronics depends on the type of class and the academic subject. Several participants of the poll said that physical note taking is much better suited for math classes and art classes, as these subjects require students to sketch and draw diagrams. Seventy-nine percent of the students also said that they would use electronics during lectures, compared to three percent for seminars.
Beyond convenience and organization, rising textbook costs were frequently cited as a reason for using laptops in class.
“Students must be self-aware enough to realize that the reading experience of digital media tends to differ dramatically from print media, and thus often from how author(s) intended their works to be consumed,” Johnston said in an email. He added that students were less likely to engage with footnotes and bibliography when using digital resources. Zeidler, who prefers physical course readers, also said it is difficult to study a long text on a screen and that Kindles are not suitable for scholarly texts.
Ultimately, professors interviewed appeared to reach a general consensus that it is tricky for faculty to patrol the use of electronics in classrooms. Students must be responsible for how they use technology, according to Johnston.
“People need to ask why they are at Yale. Is it to participate in the interminable, low-level chatter that overwhelms us every minute of the day while sitting in ivy-covered neo-Gothic buildings?” Lenski said. “A little self-reflection would go a long way toward eliminating bad habits.”