Some of Brown's courses are retreating from the digital age. Last Thursday, The Herald reported on professors who discourage or outright prohibit laptop use in their classes. When Associate Professor of International Relations Nina Tannenwald taught POLS 0400: "Introduction to International Politics," she did not allow students to have their laptops open during her lectures. Reactions were mixed: Some found this approach refreshing and engaging, others felt deeply inconvenienced. Tannenwald thinks her policy is the wave of the future, and she has received limited agreement from other faculty members. But we believe that if the ban spreads it would detract from the University's learning environment.
Laptops' power to enhance the education of smart, academically committed adults outweighs their potential for distraction. Nobody should need to be reminded that computers can allow for more effective note-taking than pen and paper, whether a student is a deft calligraphist or a pre-med whose doctorly scrawl is already in an advanced stage. Students can quickly record, rearrange and highlight text, giving them more time to listen and think rather than merely scribble.
The case holds if Word isn't the only application open — and when is it, really? Internet browsers offer a dizzying array of irrelevant pursuits, but they are also an unrivaled source of information to supplement lectures. Students can procure reporting and commentary on the topic at hand, and even correct professorial mistakes that might otherwise have been accepted as gospel. In classes with heavy reading loads broken up into many digital articles or selections, computers in class can save paper and enable students to efficiently move between pages and documents. And in fast-paced courses with detailed slides posted online, laptops let students get their heads around lecture portions that they find particularly complex.
Smaller settings are somewhat different, as Associate Professor of History Seth Rockman pointed out in last Thursday's article. Certainly, when a discussion seminar is concentrated on a single rich document, professors should expect students to close or set aside their computers. But laptops can still be vital tools during more wide-ranging discussions, bringing in fresh information and arguments.
The laptop skirmish is part of a broader battle. Many members of older generations have crowed over a study published at Stanford University last August that found a strong link between multi-tasking habits and incompetence in processing information. Here, at long last, was the proof that we whippersnappers are rotting our brains with all that emailing and Web-surfing and Facebooking. But, as the researchers themselves pointed out, the results may simply reflect pre-existing parallel penchants for both hopping between pursuits and fumbling information.
Still, the study and Tannenwald's misguided ban are both reminders that we all have to use laptops' potential responsibly. This really amounts to remembering why you're in the classroom in the first place. Shopping sites, sports blogs and other inapposite trivia are bad enough — a waste of your time, but easy for your classmates to ignore. Games, videos and gaudy images, however, are beyond the pale. They're guaranteed not only to hold your attention, but to draw the notice of those around you. Remember that motion or bright colors on your screen will distract your classmates' eyes. Otherwise we may soon lose the considerable upsides of laptops in class along with the small downsides.
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