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Which is mightier: The pen or the keyboard?

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The debate over whether or not students should be allowed to use laptops during lectures is a heated one that has sparked controversy at McGill for years. There are cases for both sides; a number of studies vilify laptops as distractions inhibiting students from fully processing information, yet, many students feel that laptop bans deprive them of an important learning and note-taking tool.

The increasing presence of technology in students’ day-to-day lives is met with more laptops and tablets in lectures. A study conducted by Winona State University in 2008 showed that out of all students who owned a laptop, 64.3 per cent of them brought their computer to lecture. Within that selection of students, each individual spent an average of 17 minutes out of the 75-minute lectures doing things unrelated to the class, such as checking social media accounts and playing games. How McGill professors approach this issue varies: Some professors find ways to actively incorporate the internet into their lectures, while others impose outright bans on any form of technology in the classroom.

Among some of the more commonly cited reasons in favour of laptop use are the faster speed at which students can take notes, increased ability to participate in class, and provision of new opportunities to engage with material.

However, some studies show that using a laptop to take notes instead of handwriting them results in lower marks. For example, researchers at Cornell University studied the effects of multitasking in the classroom and split students up into two groups—one of which used laptops in lecture and one of which did not. The study found that the students who used laptops scored significantly worse on a quiz handed out immediately after the lecture than the group of students who refrained from using laptops altogether. The results of this study were, in large part, due to the fact that many students used their computers to visit sites unrelated to the subject of their class; the laptops created a distraction.

In large part, the case for banning laptops has scientific roots—but whether or not it’s the professor’s jurisdiction to enforce such a ban is more controversial. For students with learning disabilities, the implications of laptop bans can be particularly discouraging.

“For some students who face specific barriers such as those related to a visual impairment or a learning disability, the use of a laptop in class may be critical for them to capture accurate notes related to the lecture,” Teri Phillips, director of McGill’s Office for Students with Disabilities, wrote in an email to The McGill Tribune. “While those students who have a documented disability requiring the use of a laptop in class can request an accommodation letter to do so, this presents the issue that their anonymity is no longer protected.”

Though the use of laptops in lecture can be polarizing, it is possible to compromise. Communications course lecturer François Mouillot strikes a middle ground when approaching technology in his classroom: Instead of banning laptop use completely, Mouillot asks students who use computers to sit on the right side of the room, and those who handwrite to sit on the left.

“[Separating the class] was about riffing off of the idea that screens are kind of like second-hand smoke,” Mouillot said. “[I want] to give a space for people who do not necessarily want to have to deal with the pollution of screens [and] I want […] students to think about how they engage with technology.”  

Mouillot’s approach—vertically splitting the class—is one of two ways to compromise with technology. Many professors at McGill separate their class based on laptop-use, sending those with computers to the back and those with pens to the front. By limiting mobility, this can divide the room in more than a physical sense.

Learning is not one-size-fits-all. While handwriting notes may work for some students, laptops are the clear choice for others. But before banning laptops from lectures, it’s worth considering the educational opportunities professors might be taking away from their students.

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