Columns, Opinions

Aman ’20: Don’t ban laptops from classrooms

By
Staff Columnist
Thursday, March 22, 2018

I’ve put a lot of thought into how I take notes in class. Research shows that handwriting improves retention, as the slower process of handwriting forces students to absorb and summarize material while they take notes rather than transcribe a professor’s lectures word for word. Furthermore, I know that, like many students, I am susceptible to the distracting lure of Facebook and other social media sites. On the other hand, my handwriting is atrocious, and it is sometimes difficult for me to read my notes when it’s time to study. In the end, after significant trial and error, I’ve concluded that the risk of distraction outweighs my quasi-illegible handwriting, and that overall, handwritten notes are best for me academically.

Yet, according to the Wall Street Journal, professors across the nation are increasingly taking away the choice between taking notes by hand or via computer, citing the effectiveness of handwriting and the detrimental effects of multitasking. Brown professors are not immune to this phenomenon. For example, the syllabus for ECON 1110: “Intermediate Microeconomics,” which I took last spring, read: “Please do not use laptops or mobile phones in class (I don’t trust you not to browse Facebook! I was a student once too).” While research may show that taking notes by hand is best for the average student, banning the use of laptops ignores the individual needs of students and ignores students’ ability to make decisions about their own learning.

Brown’s open curriculum is is based on trust. Other schools have distribution requirements because they feel that students need institutional intervention to appropriately select classes, and students choose these schools because they feel that such interventions are helpful in choosing the right course load. Brown is different. Brown trusts that as students, we are best equipped to make decisions about our own learning, and we choose to attend this school because we have confidence in our ability to select classes without a restrictive framework. Of course, we won’t always make the right decisions, but then it’s our responsibility to deal with the consequences; making mistakes is part of the learning process.

Similarly, professors should trust students to make decisions about how to take notes in class, and while sometimes we might make the wrong choice — choosing to browse Facebook instead of taking notes — then it is our responsibility to deal with the consequences and make better decisions in the future. Making thoughtful choices and learning from mistakes, even for seemingly trivial decisions like note-taking, are important to our educational and personal development. So while professors should offer guidance, and perhaps even strongly recommend taking notes by hand, professors should also trust us to make decisions about how we best learn.

Furthermore, banning laptops burdens students with disabilities. Professors are required to allow students to type in class if they have official accommodations, as typing in class can be crucial for students with learning disabilities such as dyslexia. For example, the professor of my microeconomics class stated in their syllabus, “If you have special accommodations that require you to have access to a computer, please first speak to me about it.” Yet laptop bans require students to initiate an additional and potentially uncomfortable conversation about accommodations. More importantly, because students with disabilities will be the only ones able to use laptops in classes where laptop use is restricted, banning laptops essentially outs those students who may not want to disclose their disability to their peers. Personally, I have an accommodation to type for my exams. But, in past classes where laptop use was banned, I’ve opted to write my notes by hand — partially because I was discovering that I take better notes by hand, but also because I didn’t want to appear difficult or entitled or be the only student typing in class. For many students, though, handwritten notes are simply not an option. Thus, banning laptops places an unnecessary burden on students with disabilities.

The most convincing argument in favor of banning laptops is that one student’s multi-tasking may distract other nearby students. This is a legitimate concern, and professors should find ways to minimize this possibility, perhaps by asking students who type to sit in the back and sides of classrooms as one previous Herald columnist suggested. Yet, while professors should attempt to minimize distractions, the cost of banning laptops — limiting students’ ability to make choices about their own learning and exposing student with disabilities — is too high to justify a ban. Professors should offer guidance, but at the end of the day, professors must trust their students to make the right decisions about their own academic experiences.

Rebecca Aman ’20 can be reached at rebecca_aman@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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