Note: “Laptop” is used in this document as a proxy for a broad range of devices, including tablets, smartphones, etc. Thanks to Cassandra Jacobs and (alum!) Jake Eakle for feedback that improved this document.
Numerous research studies over the past several years have found generally adverse learning impacts of having laptops in classrooms (a list of papers on that and related topics is in Research Literature and summarized in Popular Press).
Some of this literature is mainly an argument about how using laptops causes students to harm their own learning. However, not all students are alike, and some may feel they’re excellent multitaskers or that using a laptop actually helps them (presumably almost everyone in those studies felt that way...). Anyway, they may feel that they should be allowed to take responsibility for their own education.
The research, however, also shows a much more pernicious problem. Student learning is also negatively impacted by someone else’s laptop use. This isn’t surprising: screens have flashing content, keyboards make noise, and distractors are, in general, distracting. This is where an individual’s exercise of rights become problematic: you have the right to squander your educational opportunities, but not to take away those of others.
This phenomenon isn’t confined to the research literature. In end-of-semester surveys across multiple courses, I have found non-trivial percentages of students express frustration (sometimes in a colorful manner) at others’ laptop use. In fact, it’s seeing this on surveys that prompted me to look up the research.
At the same time, laptops are sometimes useful in coursework. Most commonly, you may be asked to try out a program, especially a concept you haven’t seen before (and hence can’t imagine in your head).
This course follows the following policy on laptop use during in-person classes that reconciles these different pressures.
I’ve explicitly given permission to use laptops for some task. (If I haven’t but you think some task is laptop-suitable, ask. I may want you to think about it instead of blindly typing it in.) When the task ends, you have to close“Close” means “screen no longer visible and no more typing”. More broadly, the device should be inert, neither producing discernible output nor being given input. your laptop.
You have some documentable reason that requires laptop use. If so please discuss it with me beforehand. Also, in light of the rest of this document, I’d appreciate your positioning yourself in class in a way that your laptop’s screen will not distract others. Note that this does not mean you have to relegate yourself to the back; perhaps that isn’t where you would like to sit! But closer to the ends of rows would help. Thanks.
Emergencies. Do the right thing.
Obviously, this policy cannot be applied directly to live on-line meetings. However, as you may have realized by now, this is less a laptop policy than a distraction policy. I would therefore still like you to keep the spirit of this policy in mind and avoid distracting your classmates. In what follows I will try to use physical world analogies. Like all analogies these aren’t perfect, but they are still useful to understanding the spirit of the policy.
Mute your audio if you have a noisy background. It’s just like muting your phone so you don’t disturb class.
This one is tricky, but try to avoid a distracting visual background, especially one with motion (e.g., waves on a beach).
I do want you to be able to express your personality; customizing your background is like expressing yourself through clothes or jewelry or tattoos. However, just as wearing an LED-festooned shirt that keeps blinking in class is bound to distract your classmates (wear it to parties, not to class), having a background constantly moving can also be distracting (use it for personal calls, but try to avoid it in class).
Please be careful with the use of chat. Ideally, only use it in person-to-person mode (e.g., to ask the instructor a question).
It can be very distracting for some people to see a constant stream of chatter, and focusing on that takes away attention from the main video content. By the time they recover their attention, they may have missed out on something important, and may never catch up for the rest of lecture.
I can also tell you that as a speaker, it is extremely difficult to keep up my own train of thought while trying to process what is happening in a chat window.
Therefore, I should only see messages that are intended for me. That implies that you shouldn’t be broadcast-chatting content that not everyone needs to see. This is analogous to what you might do in class: you might whisper something to a friend, but you wouldn’t talk so loudly that the whole class can hear you.
However, just as you are always welcome to ask questions in class, you are always, always welcome to ask questions on-line! Ideally, use the raise-hand feature, and type your question as a message directly to the instructor.
The following articles are not scientific literature but summarize the research in easily-accessible terms.
To Remember a Lecture Better, Take Notes by Hand by Robinson Meyer, The Atlantic, 2014
Laptops Are Great. But Not During a Lecture or a Meeting. by Susan Dynarski, The New York Times, 2017
The following are research papers you can read to learn more.
The laptop and the lecture: The effects of multitasking in learning environments by Helene Hembrooke and Geri Gay, Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 2003
In-class laptop use and its effects on student learning by Carrie B. Fried, Computers & Education, 2007
Daydreaming and its correlates in an educational environment by Sophie Lindquist and John McLean, Learning and Individual Differences, 2011
Examining the impact of off-task multi-tasking with technology on real-time classroom learning by Eileen Wood, Lucia Zivcakova, Petrice Gentile, Karin Archer, Domenica De Pasquale, Amanda Nosko, Computers & Education, 2011
The impact of laptop-free zones on student performance and attitudes in large lectures by Nancy Aguilar-Roca, Adrienne Williams, and Diane O’Dowd, Computers & Education, 2012
Laptop multitasking hinders classroom learning for both users and nearby peers by Faria Sana, Tina Weston, Nicholas J. Cepeda, Computers & Education, 2013
The pen is mightier than the keyboard: Advantages of longhand over laptop note taking by Pam A. Mueller and Daniel M. Oppenheimer, Psychological Science, 2014
The impact of computer usage on academic performance: Evidence from a randomized trial at the United States Military Academy by Susan Payne Carter, Kyle Greenberg, Michael S. Walker, Economics of Education Review, 2017
Logged in and zoned out: How laptop internet use relates to classroom learning by Susan Ravizza, Mitchell Uitvlugt, Kimberly Fenn, Psychological Science, 2017
Dividing attention in the classroom reduces exam performance by Arnold L. Glass, Mengxue Kang, Educational Psychology, 2018