November 17, 2009

Gadget bans put students on point, off Facebook

Laptops, cell phones, and Kindles are pushing their way into 21st century classrooms at the U of C, and some professors are pushing back, saying banning gadgets has shown positive results.

“I think students are significantly more attentive [when they’re not using laptops], to me and also to their fellow students,” said Adam Green, a professor in the history department, who no longer allows laptops during class.

A graduate student lecturer also banned computers this year, but asked to remain anonymous because he felt the policy might impact his job performance review. The lecturer, who teaches Sosc, implemented the policy after he saw too many students distracted by their laptops.

The lecturer said electronics distract instructors as well as students. “You can tell when a student isn’t paying attention, and it’s distracting for me, so it’s easier to say no.”

This instructor’s strict policy is new, but in the past he discouraged laptop use.

“I have had a softer policy in the past—I would discourage it unless you felt it was particularly important,” he said. “I think I would be distracted if I had a computer in class.”

History professor and member of the committee on Jewish Studies Moishe Postone has never seen a need for students to bring laptops to class, but said it was not necessary to ban them.

“I have never articulated a formal policy regarding laptops, because students seem to know that I wouldn’t approve,“ Postone said. “Undergrads [bringing] in laptops will be surfing or IMing; rather than a laptop being an aid, it simply gets in the way.”

Second-year Lauren Blake doesn’t use her laptop in class because she doesn’t want others to assume she’s goofing off.

“If you have a computer in class everyone thinks you’re on Facebook,” said Blake. “Pretty much anytime I see someone’s computer up I see Facebook or e-mail.”

But some attentive students swear by their laptops. First-year Edwin Olivas said that he never uses his computer for anything other than taking notes.

“I make sure to give the teacher all of my attention because that is what is expected from any student,” Olivas said. “In other words, going on Facebook or checking my e-mail would be gaining a privilege that others in the class may not have; I don’t view that as fair.”

Acknowledging that technology can be a useful resource, some professors allow for certain exceptions to their rules. Green keeps a laptop at the front of the classroom so he can use the Internet as a class resource, and Postone allows his graduate students to use laptops.

“In my grad class, I have perhaps three or four who bring in a laptop to take notes, and I am certain that all they are doing is taking notes,” he said.

Nevertheless, the stereotype of the web-browsing student is there—and students worry about more than just the impression they’ll make on their professors.

“I don’t want to be perceived to be on Facebook,” said Blake.

While Blake thinks that laptops are mostly distracting, she also acknowledges they can be used as an aid to education.

“I think there’s definitely a potential for technology to help in the class, but I don’t think that people utilize it well,” she said.

According to students, lecture classes seem to attract more laptop action than discussion classes, but not for taking notes.

“In lecture classes, it seems like everyone uses their laptops because no participation is required,” said Chase Mechanik, a second year math and political science major.

“People play Tetris and check Facebook. If it’s boring, you might as well sleep through lecture.”