The week before last, President Eisgruber announced that the pre-read for the Class of 2023 will be Stand out of our Light: Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy by James Williams. As Eisgruber explains in his address to the incoming class, the book discusses important issues about the impact personal digital technology (PDT) has on both our politics and our daily lives at the University.
I cannot be more pleased with the selection of this book for the pre-read, not least because the issue of how PDT affects our lives as undergraduates has come under increasing scrutiny over the past few months in various student publications. Some have pointed to the potential psychological harm that can come from incessant use of digital technologies, while others such as myself have drawn attention to how they interrupt important spontaneous connections between humans in the physical campus environment.
While encouraged by the University’s decision to treat this matter with seriousness, I wonder whether it does not go far enough. In many ways, of course, PDTs enhance our undergraduate experiences. In our studying, they make information and data, previously cumbersomely slow to obtain, now virtually instant. Outside the classroom, too, PDT can help organize social activities.
As with many technologies, though, even if on the whole the benefits are great, this does not mean we can afford to neglect potential harms. Here, I explore the detriment of laptop computer use to the classroom setting specifically. Then, I consider what I’ve heard to be some of the common arguments for allowing us students to use laptops in the classroom. I conclude by explaining why what seems at first a drastic measure – disallowing personal laptop use in the classroom – in fact is anything but, and presents a reasonable option the University should consider.
To recognize the numerous distractions the laptop presents in the classroom is only to recognize our own human fallibility. There will inevitably be times in almost any lecture or seminar when we find a particular topic boring, and are instead drawn to the instant gratification of buying something on Amazon, checking email, or scrolling through Facebook. As college students, we tell ourselves we can multitask, but is this supported by the psychological literature? What seems far more likely is that such distractions subtract from focus on the class itself. Not to say that without computers we are immune to lapses in focus – of course not – but the tremendous variety of information accessible through the computer makes it a qualitatively greater distraction.
More broadly, most would agree that an important intellectual skill we practice during college, regardless of disciplinary specialization, is how to focus deeply on a topic for an extended period of time. In this case, the infinite distractions presented by the laptop in the classroom present a direct threat to our education in the first place.
If laptop use in the classroom only harmed the engagement of the student using the laptop, then perhaps one could argue, with an appeal to personal autonomy, that we should allow their use anyways. This is most certainly not the case, however, bringing me to the second harm of classroom computers: not to the individual student, but to the class as a whole.
Laptop use by one student negatively affects engagement of other students in the classroom in three main ways. First, and most obviously, the constantly mutating images on a screen inevitably attracts the vision, and thus attention, of other students. Second, if one student sees another student browsing the Internet, the first student is almost certainly more likely to pursue similar distractions him or herself. And third, every student at this University, I am sure, has found him or herself in a classroom where it is readily apparent that many of their fellow students have “checked out,” so to speak, and are surfing the web instead. If a critical mass of students is distracted in this way, it can kill discussion remarkably quickly. Laptop use in the classroom is in this case not only detrimental to the engagement of one student, but to the classroom environment as a whole.
As a side remark, I should note that when the issue is seen in this light, an underlying reason for banning computers in the classroom derives from one particular discipline: architecture. Architecture, after all, provides critical lessons about how human beings interact in physical space, and the value of that physical space in the first place. Is not this why we still meet in classrooms and lecture halls in college, rather than through online courses? By removing us mentally from this classroom space, however, the web-connected computer presents an existential threat to that value of a physical college campus.
The final harm laptop use in the classroom poses is to the professor. While I cannot know exactly what a professor thinks when he or she sees students’ eyes glued to the laptop screen, I imagine that the uncertainty of whether or not students are actually paying attention is distracting, insulting, and worrying. Importantly, this does not depend on whether students are using laptops for legitimately academic reasons or not, since there is visually no way the professor, who only sees the back of the laptop screen, to know. I know from my own mother, who teaches architecture at the University of Virginia, that professors invest a great deal of time and energy into planning lectures or discussions. Putting myself in her shoes, the thought that my efforts might be replaced by Amazon or Gmail would be disheartening indeed. Worryingly, such doubt might cause faculty to reduce the effort they put into their teaching in the first place, foreseeing that it might fall on essentially deaf ears.
These are the harms I contend classroom laptops do to the student individually, to the class as a whole, and to faculty. Now I will address some of the purported benefits I’ve heard raised in favor of classroom computer use, which to this day seem to have sustained this practice.
Perhaps the most common I’ve heard is that computers allow students to take notes faster. If learning actually scaled with how many words one can record, this would constitute a legitimate defense of classroom laptop use. But does taking more notes really lead to more learning? For one, professors increasingly post their lecture slides – in the 33 courses I’ve taken at Princeton, 27 have done so – removing the need for students to frantically write down what their professors are saying.
And what of the remaining few classes in which professors do not post classroom material online? Even in these, copious class notetaking on the laptop is not a benefit, since examinations and essays focus not on regurgitation of lecture details, which in any case can often be found in the readings, but how to respond to and engage with the ideas presented. For jotting down such reflections during class, handwriting is more than sufficient. And in seminars, it is clearly far more important to engage with the ideas of others during class, which as I’ve argued above laptops handicap, than to copy down on a computer as much as possible of what everyone says. All in all, I’ve seen little justification in my almost four years at Princeton for the argument that computers enhance learning in the classroom by increasing note-taking efficiency.
I’ve also heard it argued that the Internet, accessible via the laptop, can be a useful supplement to lectures and discussions. By looking up facts, people, and dates the professor references, a student can supposedly more fully understand the material. This argument is flawed, on two counts. First, how much benefit does a student really gain in understanding a lecturer’s argument by looking up facts on the worldwide web? Such an exercise is ever so slightly helpful at best, but given how many distractions the laptop presents, I would respond it is almost always counterproductive. Second, such an argument presumes a false equivalence between the intellectual credentials of Princeton University faculty and students, and the worldwide web. Who is more worth paying attention to during the short time of a lecture or precept?
All in all, computers in our classrooms are on balance far more detrimental than helpful to our University’s pedagogical mission. The measure I propose the University take, a ban on classroom computers unless the professor explicitly asks students to use them, presents an effective and feasible solution. Indeed, my experience in courses where the professor has taken it upon him or herself to enact such a measure convinces me of this. For instance, last semester in an upper-level chemistry course, when it was apparent that a substantial fraction of the class was “tuned out,” the professor asked all students to put away their laptops. Not only did the number of questions directed at the lecturer increase almost instantly, so did discussion between students about the talk during breaks.
Even with this potential to enhance student engagement in the classroom, I can foresee many of my peers reacting negatively to this proposal. To that end, next I’ll address several potential counterarguments to the policy of banning classroom computer use.
First, I foresee some, even if they agree that laptop use in the classroom is on balance detrimental to learning, reacting to such a proposal as an infringement of our rights as students. Since we undergraduates are essentially adults, and our education is our own responsibility, we should be trusted to use technology appropriately. If we don’t, and our education suffers as a result, that’s our own fault.
For two reasons, I don’t think this counterargument is convincing. First, as described above, the detrimental impact of the classroom computer is not limited to the individual; it impacts the collective. And second, while we as college students certainly have the right to make many choices for ourselves, we should remember that we attend this University in the first place because we admit some need of guidance in our education. After all, if we knew best how to learn already, we could simply read our own books in a library or conduct our own research in a laboratory – why waste time with classrooms and professors! To argue that we should have the right to undermine our potential to learn while at college, therefore, seems rather contradictory.
A second objection I could imagine being voiced would be, why not let professors decide on this matter for themselves? If computers are indeed so bad for classroom learning, as I’ve argued, then why not let professors prohibit them? To this, I’d point out that at present, professors are put in a somewhat difficult position to pursue such action, even if they agree that classroom laptops ought to be prohibited, since banning classroom computer use is not the norm. As such, a professor telling students to not have their computers out communicates a certain lack of trust, which might be interpreted as insulting (even if it is well-warranted). Putting myself in the shoes of a professor, I could imagine that the possibility this might cause a drop in enrollment or negative course reviews would act as a subtle, yet powerful, disincentive to prohibiting computers.
This is the reason, I speculate, why more professors have not already banned laptops in the classroom, especially since I’ve heard many simultaneously lament their negative impact on student engagement. (Interestingly, I have heard from some of my peers majoring in the humanities that it is more typical for professors to ban computers in the classroom in their courses; my experience is mainly in the sciences, where it is definitely not.) In any event, if the administration were to take it upon itself to disallow laptops in class except under explicit faculty permission, then faculty in any discipline would not have to take such an uncomfortable action themselves. If a professor does believe that computers would help his or her students in class, then by all means, that professor could encourage students to use computers. But of course, I highly doubt this would often be the case.
I still remember the first class I attended at Princeton, four years ago at Preview: Robbie George’s course on civil liberties. I also recall how impressed I was with the intellectual sophistication of the discussion; it made me excited to be attending this University. But I also remember being somewhat surprised, sitting in the back in a position to see the entire class, by the number of students who were browsing the Internet, either partially or totally disengaged from the discussion. I do not at all criticize our student body for this behavior, understanding that the distractions of the digital age constitute a legitimate challenge our generation – and perhaps even more so the next generation– faces. But that does not mean we cannot, or should not, take proactive measures to alleviate this problem. Banning computers in the classroom at our University to protect its pedagogical mission is a good place to start.