Laptop dystopia

When not used properly, personal computers in the classroom may do more harm than good.

by Allison Fingerett

As I sat furiously taking notes in the center of the lecture hall, my hand stopped writing when the person next to me turned her head and made the universal âÄúI have a questionâÄù face. I was prepared to provide clarification, though that wasnâÄôt her concern. âÄúDo you think these boots are cute?âÄù she asked, pointing to the virtual shopping cart on her computer screen. YouâÄôve got to be kidding me. Laptop computers are an excellent learning tool. Besides the obvious wealth of information at your fingertips, some professors speak far too fast for the human hand to follow with a pen. But itâÄôs time to stop lying to ourselves. If all youâÄôre doing is taking notes, by all means, carry on. But if youâÄôre spending precious class time playing solitaire or checking Facebook, IâÄôm losing my patience. And IâÄôm not the only one. In talking to students on campus about the issue of laptop misuse in class, I uncovered the root of the problem. âÄúI check my Facebook during class, but IâÄôm only hurting myself. If you choose to stare at my computer screen, thatâÄôs your problem,âÄù said a sophomore. When those words rolled off her tongue, I had an epiphany. Classroom Internet surfers arenâÄôt trying to bother anyone; they just think theyâÄôre invisible âÄî or, rather, that they have every right to do as they please. Every instructor is different. Some have banned laptops in their classroom altogether, and others overlook quiet misconduct with the belief that students are accountable for their own educations and will police one another if need be. But students arenâÄôt always comfortable exercising what looks like control over their peers, and I donâÄôt blame them. Though IâÄôve been an âÄúadultâÄù for quite some time, IâÄôd rather people feel good about me while I sit and grimace internally than fight for my right to a clear visual field. Sad but true. âÄúElementary school kids are better at policing themselves than we are,âÄù said a student who works as a school bus driver. âÄúAll I have to do is look in the rear-view mirror and they tell each other to sit down and shut up. We, as adults, are afraid to question each otherâÄôs values.âÄù SheâÄôs absolutely right, but we have to move past this. Our education is wildly expensive, and admissions are increasingly competitive. If we donâÄôt speak up, the alternative is craning our necks in a front row seat or spending 75 minutes battling a dwindling faith in humanity. âÄúIâÄôm the first one in my family to go to college, and I take it very seriously,âÄù said a senior. âÄúWhen I see someone surfing the Internet in class I get angry, like this opportunity means nothing to them.âÄù Even if it were feasible to tune out the flashing light of scrolling screens, the sheer effort necessary to ignore such distractions breeds bitterness that detracts from the learning process. Other consequences can be purely subliminal. âÄúExtracurricular Web surfing sends a signal to everyone else in class that whatever is going on is unimportant and not worth attending to. Even subconsciously, this can influence others to zone out and become disengaged,âÄù said Ben Denkinger, an instructor in the psychology department. Boredom is a demon that lurks in even the most fascinating lectures, but thatâÄôs no excuse to wage war on your classmatesâÄô peripheral vision or to slowly erode your mental capabilities. Children of the digital age are multitasking machines, but the capability comes at a cognitive price. In a study at Stanford University in 2009, subjects were split into two categories: those who multitask heavily and those who donâÄôt. The two groups were then presented with a series of experiments that tested their ability to switch between tasks and discriminate between relevant and irrelevant stimuli. âÄúPeople who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information do not pay attention, control their memory or switch from one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time,âÄù the study concluded. Even if youâÄôre only hurting yourself, do you really want to be? It is possible to use laptops responsibly in class, but if you know you canâÄôt escape the temptation to stray off task, it may be best to take notes the old-fashioned way. âÄúItâÄôs going to take some time to evolve before laptops are truly beneficial in the classroom,âÄù said Natalie Hopkins-Best, a teaching assistant in the department of mass communications. âÄúThey tend to be more of a distraction than a benefit at this point.âÄù But not everyone agrees, which makes this such a delicate issue. âÄúSometimes being on the network is helpful in engaging with the material, and I would tend to accept that trade-off,âÄù said Joseph A. Konstan, professor of computer science and engineering and specialist in the field of human-computer interaction. Technology can be a very valuable resource, but we must compartmentalize its functions if we hope to get the most out of our education. âÄúThe computer is not at fault. We configure these primarily social systems, allowing them to interrupt us for things that are not that important,âÄù Konstan said. Ultimately, we must ask ourselves why weâÄôre in the classroom if all weâÄôre there to do is peruse the Internet. As Denkinger pointed out, âÄúLectures should be a conversation between the professor and the students, and by coming to class you tacitly agree to be a part of that conversation.âÄù I donâÄôt mean to make it sound like everyone is abusing the privilege of using a laptop in class, but itâÄôs still a problem that needs to be addressed. Life will always be distracting, and we canâÄôt blame others for our lack of focus, but we can demand respect. Those boots were adorable, but thatâÄôs not the kind of information I come to class to learn.