Laptops a distraction in the classroom

The Internet age really is something else. Advances seem to occur daily, and while I freely admit I cannot keep up with all of them, I marvel at them all the same.However, my real concern is what the availability of Internet access is doing to the college classroom.

On one hand, the Internet can be a great tool if used correctly. Education should not be limited to one man or woman, and with that theme, efforts to catalog library archives online as well as to utilize podcasts to disseminate content and tutorials should be lauded.

What I don’t support is the wide usage of laptops in the classroom.

Call me an old fuddy-duddy if you want, but laptops can be terribly distracting – not only to the user, but also to other students. That hideous clatter of fingers on a keyboard makes it difficult to pay attention to lectures. But surely all those students are furiously taking notes, right?

For me, the tiered classrooms in the College of Business Administration building were a perfect place for a non-scientific experiment on what laptops are really used for. While it is true that only a handful of students actually toted their laptops into class, it could be easily observed that quality time checking e-mail and using AIM were the most frequent pursuits.

Apparently I am not the only one bothered by this trend. David Cole, a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center, has banned laptops from his classroom after repeatedly hearing, “Could you repeat the question?” as distracted students look up from a laptop.

In a recent column in the Washington Post, Cole said that his feeling is that his “class is much more engaged than recent past classes” since he enacted the laptop ban, and he is armed with results of an anonymous poll of students to back up this assertion. He found that “70 percent said that, on balance, they liked the no-laptop policy.”

I must admit that I feel cheated being present in a lecture where other students are pecking feverishly at their all-consuming laptops. Lecture material, assignments and tests can certainly be provided outside of the physical classroom. Lecture time is when other points of view and thoughtful discussion by prepared students and faculty should take place – but that isn’t occurring frequently enough.

Of course, it must be understood that I am not advocating the banning of laptops from campus and the return of the abacus. In fact, it is clear that functional literacy in software applications is critical to landing a good internship or full-time employment – something everyone aspires to achieve.

This is where faculty responsibility comes in. In one of my classes, the professor gave assignments utilizing Microsoft Excel to analyze data that was complementary to the lecture content. That was useful because it taught skills that could be transferred to different subject areas, and it reinforced key concepts in the course. More of this kind of use of technology outside of the classroom is certainly needed.

So perhaps there can be a happy medium when it comes to technology on campus. Papers, assignments and research can certainly be aided by the right tools, but allowing students to distract the learning environment through the use of laptops for social pursuits is unacceptable.

After all, it is hard to complain about the rising costs and challenges of completing a college education if students aren’t serious about being educated in the first place.

Aaron Hill is a senior majoring in economics.