The problem with laptops: dealing with classtime pastimes

It is long period, and you’ve made it halfway through the class, but now your mind is wandering. You’re sure that what the teacher has to say is interesting, but you just can’t seem to get interested.

Suddenly, a solution pops into your head. You’re already taking notes on your laptop, so who’ll notice if you just open up Chrome and browse for a while? Besides, you’re sitting in the back row! No teacher ever comes back there.

Yes, laptops are powerful tools. But they can also be powerful sources of distraction.

Now students are no longer tied down to a bank of computers in the library for such basic programs as Word and Excel.

When a teacher looks over a student’s shoulder, chances are that the student is diligently taking notes or doing an in-class assignment. Yet it’s what the students do when the teacher isn’t looking that’s becoming an increasing concern among teachers.

“I was telling my son and his friend about our 1:1 laptop program,” English teacher Jane Bauman said, “and they told me in unison: ‘If a kid is looking at his laptop in class, I guarantee you he’s not paying attention.’”

That’s because for many, if not all, students, the lulls in class provide the perfect opportunity to get in some browsing time.

“I’ll surf the Web or play videogames, although I don’t do much of the second any more,” senior Jaspreet Gill admits. “I like to go to my Just Cause 2 (a popular sandbox game) server’s forums to check up on what’s happening with various people and factions.”

While Gill’s in-class gaming (something that he now claims is a thing of the past) is certainly not the norm, his habit of browsing the Web may be.

“It’s pretty easy to find time in class to browse the Internet,” said one junior girl. “I usually go to Pinterest for a minute or two because the content is easy to pick up and put down.”

However, it is certainly more common in some classes than in others.

Typically, students say they’re less likely to use their laptop for purposes other than schoolwork in math classes for the simple reason that they’re rarely ever needed in class. After all, only a student who’s reached savant-level speed with the Mathtype software installed on school laptops could take notes faster than with the tried-and-true pencil-and-paper technique.

Conversely, humanities (namely English and history) classes are often the ones most plagued by the distraction epidemic, as students are frequently on their laptops taking notes or doing in-class work.

And humanities teachers aren’t oblivious to this growing problem.

“I can mostly tell when people are messing around,” English teacher Ron Bell said. “They’ll get these random facial expressions in class, so I know they’re scrolling through images.”

So, yes, while some teachers may not know who, when and how their students are misusing their laptops, they  know that misuse is occurring.

“It’s hard to circulate in my classroom,” said history teacher Daniel Neukom, “although it is easy to spot smiling students. I know that Thutmose III isn’t exactly turning them on.”

While all teachers would agree that the misuse of laptops in the classroom is a bad thing, their views on how to deal with it are far from united.

One school of thought maintains that students should be free to use (and abuse) their laptops as they see fit. If they fail, it’s their prerogative.

“I try to run my class the way I ran my college class,” history teacher Bruce Baird said. “At some point you’re going to learn that if you’re not paying attention, you’re going to suffer the consequences.”

High school, Baird argues, is a place to learn responsibility and what is needed to succeed in an academic environment.

But Baird said that he wouldn’t hesitate to take away the privileges of someone who he felt distracted the class or was continually damaging his or her own grades.

However, many faculty members  argue that this laissez-faire approach ultimately doesn’t work. Some, like biology teacher Kellie Whited, say that a heavy-handed approach is needed when dealing with technology.

“Teenagers don’t have a fully developed prefrontal cortex, which helps them to make appropriate decisions,” Whited said. “It’s our job as teachers to act as that prefrontal cortex and remind them that they need to pay attention.”

And Whited isn’t afraid to put her philosophy into effect. Last year, she banned her whole biology class from using laptops in class.

Peer pressure, she says, is a powerful motivating factor. “If one student gets distracted, then the whole class loses. It becomes really hard to ignore the temptation.”

Bauman espouses a similar philosophy. According to Bauman, the key to making sure laptop-using students don’t get distracted is to never give them the opportunity.

“I’m a control freak,” Bauman said, smiling. “If they’re going to take notes, I give them a handout and make them take notes on that. If I feel like they’re not using their laptops right, my frequent instruction is to put screens down. I’m always circulating.”

Despite the widespread misuse of laptops, some teachers of note-heavy classes claim to not have a problem with their students.

Neukom said few of his students used laptops in his freshman Ancient History course despite its reliance on written notes.

“I would say that a minority of students used their laptops—definitely fewer than a quarter,” Neukom said. “People were free to use their laptops. They just felt more comfortable using paper and pen.”

Neukom cites the frequency with which he gives his students diagrams and maps to copy as one reason for their limited technology use.

On the other hand, history teacher Sue Nellis has been using the computer in her new freshman Comparative World History for numerous purposes, including note-taking, group research and powerpoint presentations.

According to Nellis, she has had  few problems with freshmen getting distracted in class.

“There’s definitely going to be a certain amount (of misuse). I think that it’s okay,” Nellis said. “I think part of what we want to do is teach students to learn how to stay focused.”

That’s not to say that Nellis lets her students run wild. She enforces a strict screens-down (or at a 45-degree angle) rule when students aren’t taking notes or working on an activity.

You look up from the funny pictures of cats on the browser page. The clock reads 12:03, and the teacher is winding down his lecture. Just like that, the class is over.

Who knew that in addition to taking notes, your laptop can also be a time machine?

Previously published in the print edition on Oct. 28, 2014.



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