Observers gazing into an occupied lecture hall at the University would most likely see laptops aglow and hear the sound of fingers tapping on keysboards.
But, unless professors incorporate laptops into a course curriculum, the devices may be more distracting than helpful to students, according to a forthcoming study conducted by the University’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching.
Matthew Kaplan, managing director of the CRLT, said the study’s findings indicate that if instructors successfully implement laptops into their courses, the computers can be learning tools. When laptops are used in class but not for specific class purposes, Kaplan said they serve as more of a distraction due to online resources like Facebook and email.
The data, which was collected from surveys asking University students how they felt about the level of distraction laptops cause in class, will be available in a paper to be published by the CRLT.
Currently, there isn’t a University-wide policy specifying rules or restrictions on laptop use in class, so professors and lecturers have the flexibility to decide whether or not to allow computer use.
Though laptops can sidetrack students from course material, the CRLT provides University faculty and GSIs training resources to help them effectively incorporate laptops in lectures.
Some faculty members have started to use laptops interactively in class in a similar fashion to the iClicker, Kaplan said. Instead of answering multiple choice questions on an iClicker, students type full responses to questions which promotes critical thinking.
Kaplan said the laptops also allow students to send messages to their GSIs and ask questions that they would not have a chance to ask in a large classroom setting.
“The faculty member can even have a sense of what’s confusing students,” Kaplan said. “What we found is when laptops are used very intentionally that way, they’re somewhat less distracting, and students feel more like it’s contributing to their learning.”
Shazia Iftkhar, assistant professor of Communications Studies at the University, wrote in an e-mail interview that she doesn’t allow laptops in her Communications 101 lecture or in her smaller classes because she feels they are a distraction for students. Banning laptops generates a more learning-oriented environment, she wrote.
“We feel that not using laptops allows students to listen and engage in discussion in a more focused way and to develop critical and engaged note-taking skills through active listening,” Iftkhar wrote.
With the proliferation of portable technologies among students, determining whether or not to allow laptops in class is something faculty have to think about more than they did 10 years ago, Kaplan said.
“I think it’s a question of thinking carefully about what your goals are and how the laptop might help you meet those goals,” he said. “Sort of what we say about any technology tool, which is it’s a tool, and it should be connected to your goals for the class and for student learning.”
LSA freshman Blake Mackie took a class last semester in which laptops were prohibited. He said he thinks many students understand why the professor would choose not to allow laptops in class, but it is an inconvenience for students who use their computer as a way to take notes.
“It was my first semester, and I wasn’t allowed to use laptops in any of my classes actually, so that’s what I was used to,” Mackie said. “I think it was good because then people weren’t distracted by Facebook and everything that you see in all the classes where you can use laptops.”