If you walk into a college classroom while it is in session, you will inevitably see any combination of laptops, tablets and smartphones on the desks of both the students and the instructor. It is assumed that the students are following along with the PowerPoint or taking notes on the lecture, but you might wonder if that is all they are really doing. As a sophomore at the University of New Hampshire who has taken my laptop to class on many occasions, I can say with confidence, no, they are doing far more than that with their devices.
I promise, I don’t bring my laptop with the intent to check Twitter, I bring my laptop to take notes on the PowerPoint slides. That is how it starts, but it’s easy to get distracted when my computer is so connected. My phone is linked to my laptop so when someone texts me, I get a message on my screen immediately saying who is texting me and their message. When that happens, I think, “I have time to read this text,” but then, it would be rude not to respond, so of course I do. Then, they respond back, so I have to do the same. They tell me our professor uploaded the exam grades, so I obviously have to go check that to see what I got. I see that I got a good grade so I excitedly text my friend back. She tells me to check Twitter because something crazy is trending. I cannot believe it so I tweet about it and I already have one retweet! Meanwhile, is the Financial Accounting professor saying something at the front of the room?
I have been in this situation and I can also confirm that it has happened to other students around me. I have seen students stop listening and simply scroll through Twitter because, “Well, the slides are online.” However, I have also been in a history class where the teacher referenced a piece of music from the 1950s that none of us had ever heard, so he had a student pull up the song on their iPad. I have seen a student look up a concept during a class discussion that they did not understand, and have had news of a school shooting brought up minutes after the incident occurred while sitting in a current events class. The discussion of technology in the classroom seems to skip over how enriching it can be and focus only on the disruption it can cause. We seem to forget that the “work world” can be just as distracting. After we graduate, we will most likely be working somewhere that has access to the Internet, and no one is going to stand behind us and scold if we get distracted. We are going to have to figure out how to balance distractions and work on our own without an adult telling us how. That is the point of school, is it not?
The UNH policy states that mobile/electronic devices are not allowed in the classroom unless the professor states otherwise. If the professor allows devices, then they are to be used exclusively for class-related activities. I have only had one professor actually ban the use of electronics in the classroom and it was, ironically, a computer science class and the professor was the director of an IT department. We were not to use computers during class and if someone used their phone, they would get a warning followed by the phone being taken away. I understand the reasoning of not allowing the devices as it forced everyone to pay attention, but I have to wonder if it did anything to prepare us for the real world. Many students in that class were majoring in CIS, so not allowing them to work on a computer seemed like a backwards approach to preparing them for their professions.
Earlier this semester I took an exam where I was allowed to use my laptop solely for the notes and supplementary resources that the professor posted on Blackboard. I was not at all tempted to use the Internet for looking up answers; I had enough information right in front of me as the exam was open note. However, since my phone is connected to my laptop, before I knew it I had received about 10 text messages and was reading the partial message that was pushed onto my screen. There was no information in those messages that would help me succeed on the exam, but it was a major distraction. Was I cheating? No, not at all. Getting those messages gave me absolutely NO advantages with my exam and I knew that while I was reading them. It actually had the opposite impact in distracting me from my work because I started thinking about what my friend was saying. However, that is on me. I should have shut off my text messages on my computer before I started the exam, because although it gave me no advantage, I bet my professor would have been mad if he knew that I was getting the texts. If this distraction impacts my grade, I am not about to blame my professor for allowing me to use a laptop – he did it to help us.
I know that distractions come hand-in-hand with technology, but I think if universities are going to compete as schools designed to prepare students for the real world, they should not ban the use of laptops in class. College students are paying quite a bit of money for the ability to come to class and do what they want when they get there. I do not think that at the college level we should be told if we can or cannot use technology to take notes in class. By now we should be able to make our own decisions, and if we choose not to pay attention in class, that is our own fault. To truly prepare college students for the real world, the use of technology should be allowed, if for no other reason than to teach students to take responsibility for their own success.