It’s 7:45 on a Tuesday morning, and Aileen Normile is scanning and clicking through Web page after Web page. From ESPN, she gets the Monday Night Football score; from Google News, updates on political candidates and international headlines from The New York Times.
Thirty minutes later she has completed her last current events quiz of the year in COM 107: Communications and Society. She only missed two questions – a relief, as those missed points can add up.
Normile, an undecided freshman in the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, along with a growing number of Syracuse University students bring their laptops to class in order to take notes, record lectures and review.
During the last couple years, Syracuse professors have noticed the trend of students bringing laptops into the classroom and have developed varying stances on its acceptability. While they feel positively about incorporating technology into their curriculum, most are in agreement it comes down to the student and how the laptop will benefit or hinder his or her education.
‘On the one hand, I want to give students the maximum amount of latitude to do what they need to do to succeed in the class,’ said Bradley Gorham, a communications professor, in an e-mail. ‘If that means typing notes into a laptop instead around of taking note the old-fashioned way, that’s fine.’
‘On the other hand, it seems simply too tempting for students with open laptops to do things other than pay attention and take notes, and that then becomes a distraction not only for them but for the students sitting next to them,’ Gorham said.
For David Baer, a freshman newspaper major, that possible distraction is nothing different than the options of spacing out or doodling in class.
‘If I am in a large lecture and get bored, instead of drawing or passing notes to a friend, I find other activities on my computer,’ Baer said. ‘Just because you have a computer doesn’t mean you will be more distracted. If you don’t want to pay attention, you don’t have to. You have to choose to focus.’
Todd Alessandri, a Whitman School of Management professor, leaves the decision to focus in class up to his students, but he can tell when they’re not paying attention, and reminds them often of the consequences.
One such consequence several years ago was the banning of laptops from all graduate Whitman classes after it was observed that many students spent their time surfing the Internet. Currently, graduate students can bring laptops only if specifically allowed by their professor.
To combat the same issue in his undergraduate Whitman classes, Alessandri makes class participation and discussion an essential part of students’ grades and even attempts to utilize laptop technology in his classrooms by putting all of his Power Point notes online. That way, students can download the files before class and type in their own notes during the lecture.
‘My general stance is that there is a very useful and positive way to use laptops to enhance the learning experience, but I think the struggle is not having enough self-discipline to not play,’ Alessandri said. ‘Open Word or Power Point, shut down e-mail and keep all other programs closed. The student has to always think about if their laptop is hurting or helping them.’
One way laptops serve to help some students is in the memory and retention of lecture notes. Bruce Carter, an SU psychology and child development professor, said it is a common misconception that typing notes rather than hand writing them has negative effects on students remembering essential information.
He adds if one tries to multi-task too much, as in surfing the Web or playing games, performance can be hindered. But if all efforts are put into one action, like typing lecture notes, there is no difference than if they were handwritten.
‘All the data indicates that everyone is bad at multi-tasking even though we all think we’re good at it,’ Carter said. ‘As we add additional work into what we are doing with our minds, we lose attention to other things. It’s competition for attention that becomes the problem, but if one focuses, you can process information just as well typing it.’
Tanya Eckert, a behavior disorders professor at SU, doesn’t understand why more of her students don’t type their notes. She consistently sees students shaking their hands halfway through lecture after writing so much.
‘As long as you can type efficiently, I would think that using a laptop and typing notes would be to their advantage,’ Eckert said. ‘Part of it may just be patterns though, as I have heard that a lot of students take hand notes and then type them up at home. It provides them the opportunity to review again and learn to a greater depth.’
Chemistry professor Phillip Borer found a software program that allows students to see large chemical and biological connections on their laptops during class. ChemSketch, which he has students download onto their laptops in the first week of class, is used in the CHE 107: General Chemistry Lab every few weeks to help illustrate chemical models.
‘Software benefits students because it’s hard to see something that is in fact 3-D on a single piece of note paper,’ Borer said. ‘By using their laptops in class and this software, they can rotate atoms on the screen to measure distance and connect ions. They can actually visualize molecules.’
While many professors are attempting to bring more technology into the classroom, in the end, it comes down to how well students are able to discipline themselves to focus during class with or without a laptop in front of them.
For Baer, the benefits of using a laptop outweigh the possible distractions, and his life has been greatly simplified at SU.
‘I have all of my notes for all of my classes in one place, and I am not going to lose my computer like I would paper notes,’ he said. ‘In the mornings I just grab my laptop, charger and ID and I’m good to go.’
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