Drop the laptop? Not so fast

Opinion/Science & Technology by

For my first three years at McGill, I hand-wrote my notes in class. Every semester, I would restock my supply of coloured notebooks, labeling each with the proper course code. It worked well—I would go to class, write down everything the professor scrawled on the board, and then review it later. Last semester, though, I started taking my laptop to some classes, a choice I don’t regret.

The use of laptops in the classroom has long been a topic of conversation for students and professors, and there are valid arguments on both sides. Laptops allow students to take notes more efficiently and keep track of slides, but they can be distracting for both users and nearby students. Ultimately, the benefits and costs of laptop use in the classroom depend on the situation.

The average person can write between 25 and 30 words per minutes, type 50-100 words per minute, and speak 100-200 words per minute. This would suggest that a typist can copy two to three times as much as a pen and paper note taker. However, much of note taking consists of filtering through information and identifying the important parts. The ability to do this is independent of the medium being used.

Laptops can be quite useful in upper level courses, in which the subject matter depends heavily on prerequisite courses. Due to changing professors, some of these prerequisites are inconsistent from year to year. Learning new material relies on the ability to recall information learned in semesters past, and a computer can make this information more accessible, allowing the student to follow the lecture more closely. While a pen-and-paper note-taker may be stuck wondering what a B+ tree is, a laptop user can look it up and get back on track in the middle of the lecture.

In addition to relying heavily on fundamental material, many science and engineering courses emphasize details. While in some English, philosophy, or history courses, lecture slides are used to guide discussions, they serve as an exhaustive reference guide in most science or engineering courses. In classes such as thermodynamics, organic chemistry, or computer engineering the ability to simultaneously write down critical information and follow the lecture is crucial to success. Clifford Nass, a psychology professor at Stanford, cites multitasking as the main problem with laptop use. However, all note-taking is multitasking; students must listen to the lecture while copying key points. The use of a computer allows the user to spend less time writing, and more time listening, resulting in better learning.

Despite the obvious benefits, many denounce laptops in the classroom, claiming they can be distracting for the student using the computer and those nearby. While this is certainly true, it would be ignorant to posit that those without computers are model students. Crossword puzzles, neighbourly conversations, and naps are commonplace in lectures. Someone quietly taking notes on a computer is no more distracting than those who whisper, eat, or pass notes in class.

In support of these criticisms, Professor W. Joseph Campbell at American University says, “Laptops can be a serious distraction, which is a principal reason I prefer not to see them open in the classroom.” While Campbell may be correct, there is no doubt that there are some students who can use laptops effectively. Should these students put away their laptops in order for their peers to perform better? Surely disallowing computers in a situation where they would be advantageous is unfair. The disciplined students who can use laptops to enhance their learning experience shouldn’t be penalized because their peers are distracted by notes taken on a computer.

While laptops can certainly be useful in class, there are many who abuse the privilege. The debate is not one with a right and wrong answer, but rather depends on the context. The onus is on each student to make the right decision.