Professors call laptops a class distraction

Latecomers, dozers and loud-whispers have always plagued college classrooms. But the ability to access Facebook, e-mail, games, and the Internet on a BlackBerry, laptop, or iPhone is a new frontier of distraction – and some professors are trying to do something about it.

Several professors agree more students are using laptops in class and more are twiddling on their smart phones like iPhones and BlackBerrys. To combat eyes and minds wandering to news feeds and Twitter lists, instead of English readings or economics lessons, a growing number of faculty members have decided to ban laptops in an effort to win back students’ attention and improve learning.

Political science professor Chris Deering said students may think they’re passing off their Web browsing as note-taking, but he can tell when students are not paying attention.

“I don’t have to be looking at somebody and I can tell that something’s going on. My peripheral vision is just fine,” said Deering, who banned laptops in his lecture class for the first time this year.

While some professors acknowledged the advantages of having laptops available for students to look up information in class and take notes, Deering and other professors expressed concern over students distracting themselves and their instructors.

“The bigger the course, the bigger the potential distraction, unfortunately. And it really is that it’s rude to the other students and distracting and certainly people in a classroom ought not be degrading other students’ learning experiences. That’s just not right,” Deering said.

Deering added, “Even though I’ve got my outline that kind of keeps me in order, something like that can distract me and I literally forget what I’m saying.”

Margaret Soltan, professor of English, said she began asking students not to bring laptops about three years ago, and put a formal no-laptop policy in her syllabus this year.

“I began to notice that students with laptops weren’t really looking at me and they were just sort of mechanically taking notes,” Soltan said.

She said small English classes require students to engage in discussion, and she could tell the students with laptops were less focused on the class. Sometimes she couldn’t see their faces, she said.

“It just seemed to me that for the sake of discussion and focus and intensity in the classroom and just social engagement, it would be better if they didn’t use them,” Soltan said.

“I haven’t heard any complaints from any student, and I have heard gratitude from students,” Soltan added.

Soltan said that some colleagues of hers have policies banning cell phones in the classroom, and that it may be the next step for her.

“That’s the next front,” said Soltan of cell phones in class. “The war never ends.”

Many professors agreed that phones in class are less of a disruption than laptops, but Soltan noted that some students check their phones religiously.

“Of course all professors notice students surreptitiously checking their cell phones and to me, there’s sort of a compulsion about it. I mean the class only lasts for an hour or so,” Soltan said.

Bruce Dickson, a professor of political science, banned laptops in both his large lecture class and its smaller discussion sections this semester.

“When I had taught the class in previous semesters, it was pretty clear that a lot of the students who were using laptops were surfing the Web,” Dickson said.

Several students said they have noticed other students using laptops for non-class related activities.

“If they can manage to get a good grade and still go on Facebook, then good for them. It doesn’t affect me in any way,” sophomore Matt Pergamo said, who uses his own laptop for taking notes.

Freshman Chris Marni said he has seen students video chatting in class.

“They have headphones, so they do it that way,” he said.

But video-chatting is not the only surprising behavior to be found in lectures, one professor said.

“One time in lecture I saw two students kind of in the back but in the middle making out. People get up and leave, they read the newspaper – The Hatchet of course,” said Chad Rector, professor of political science. “So yes, I see students doing all kinds of things that are seemingly not consistent with paying attention or taking notes.”

Rector said he isn’t sure whether laptops add to the number of students who are not paying attention. He said there are many ways students entertain themselves without the help of technology.

“If students want to goof off and not pay attention in class, I might make fun of them and they won’t do as well on the exam, but I don’t really see myself as being in charge of propping their eyelids open and forcing them to pay attention,” he said.

Freshman Jenna Duncan said she often gets distracted by her e-mail, which alerts her with pop-ups when she has a new message. However, she doesn’t find that her laptop inhibits her focus, especially in her classes in 2020 K St. where she can’t access the Internet.

Duncan and Anna Anecca, a freshman, agreed that they were not distracted by the people around them using laptops to check Facebook or do other non-class-related activities.

“Once I check my phone, I know I won’t be able to stop, so I usually just hide it in the bottom of my backpack,” Anecca said.

Other students check their phones less often in their harder classes, and more in the classes they know they can do well in. Pergamo doesn’t check his phone in his history class, where he sits in the front, but says he does in his physics class.

“It’s one of my better subjects so I don’t have to pay attention as much,” he said.

Duncan said she checks her phone once in a while, but not compulsively. “I don’t have a BlackBerry, so that helps,” she said.

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