On the first day of Winter 2016, professor Ron Den Otter singled out a student in his constitutional theory class. She was texting on her phone while Den Otter was going over the part of his syllabus that explains his policies on electronic devices.
“Get out,” Den Otter said.
The student argued, but he was set on her leaving and the look on his face made it apparent that he wasn’t even remotely interested in hearing her pleas for a second chance. While Den Otter was shaking his head and pointing toward the door, the student stood up and walked out of the class humiliated.
Den Otter eventually pulled the student back into the classroom and explained it was all a ploy to display his feelings on disrespect via electronic devices. The student was in on the charade the whole time.
This ruse showcases a deeper issue within the classroom setting. It’s now a rarity to enter a classroom without the presence of glowing screens. Laptops have become an essential tool for students, but they have also become problematic. The negative aspects of these devices have caused some professors to ban their use, but other professors find their utility to be worth the burden.
“One of the greatest challenges as a teacher is getting students to pay attention and not become distracted,” Den Otter said.
When Den Otter was sitting in on a lecture at Pepperdine University School of Law, he noticed that the majority of the students were on websites that didn’t pertain to the information being taught. He observed one student watching a UFC fight.
One of teachers’ greatest worries about laptops is that they have the tendency to steal the attention of students that are engaged.
“It’s much easier to be distracted when you’re behind someone who is using their computer in a way that they shouldn’t be during class,” Den Otter said. “It’s almost like you become a captive audience.”
This, however, doesn’t deter Den Otter from allowing students to use laptops in the classroom. He combats this problem by urging students who are going to use their devices for something other than classwork to sit in the back of the room.
“The bottom line is that I don’t want to discourage the use of laptops when they’re being used appropriately,” Den Otter said. “Pre-law students always use computers, and when you’re in law school, a professor can even be drowned out by the chatter of typing.”
Some teachers such as history lecturer Jonathan Wilson are opposed to the use of cell phones and/or laptops in their classroom.
“I’ve seen students playing cards and going on Facebook,” Wilson said. “But it was students playing movies in class? That was the last straw.”
Wilson could see that the flashing lights coming from the screens of their laptops were distracting other students. It turned out that there were various students watching movies without sound during his lectures. Eventually, the students who were distracted by others complained, and that’s when Wilson completely banned the use of laptops.
Many departments at Cal Poly have professors and lecturers who ban the use of laptops in their classrooms — even computer science.
“You’d be surprised,” computer science assistant professor Bruce DeBruhl said. “There are multiple members in (the computer science department) that ban laptops during lectures.”
“I encourage my students to not do distracting browsing, but use for notes is fine — just stay off of Facebook. But who knows, if you ask me the same question in a few years, I might have a different opinion,” DeBruhl said.
It is undeniable that there are potential benefits to allowing laptops in the classroom. Some students can type faster than they write, and this can permit superior note taking. Other students are able to organize their notes in a tidier fashion. Another benefit is that students have the ability to look up information during lectures and discussions, and this can enhance the learning experience.
Gary Laver and Charles Slem, both psychology professors at Cal Poly, did a study that found 52 percent of the 107 students they observed during a lecture were using laptops to view material that was unrelated to the lecture. They also found that attentiveness depended on the seat location of the student.
The study noted that, “laptops may be a tool for some, but they are a distraction for most” and that “the more information available prior to a lecture, the more likely laptops will be distractions.”
“It’s almost beyond human capacity to have a device that puts the world in your lap, audio, visual, just any kind of distraction that you can imagine and not use it,” Laver said.
The biggest factor in the debate of whether laptops should be used in classrooms is that handwriting notes are more beneficial to the student than typing notes. A study done by psychology professors Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer, of Princeton and UCLA respectively, found that when students handwrite their notes, they have a stronger conceptual understanding of the material and are more successful in applying that knowledge than those who took notes from the same lecture on a computer. This is due to the cognitive processing that takes place when handwriting material.
The same processing is not done when typing. The study claims that the brain must engage in “heavy mental lifting” and this fosters greater understanding of the material as well as superior retention.
“Look, it’s all about learning,” Wilson said. “And I think what the problem is here, is that we’re sacrificing quality for convenience.”