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Student Perspective: Computers in the Classroom: Tools or Toys?


Earlier this month, Dan Rockmore, Professor of Computer Science at Dartmouth wrote "The Case for Banning Laptops in the Classroom" in The New Yorker and Mary Flanagan, the Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Professor in Digital Humanities wrote "The Classroom as Arcade" in Inside Higher Ed.

Rose Wang '17

At Dartmouth, most students carry their laptops around on school days, both for studying after classes and also taking notes during lectures. As I sit here in the 1902 room of the library and count the number of people studying with computers, about thirty out of the thirty-five people in this room are staring at their computer screens, presumably studying, as they choose to be in the library. For the rest of the group, two people are checking their iPhones, two are chatting with friends in whispers. I only found one person studying from a good ol’ fashioned binder, sitting at the window, flipping through paper notes once in a while. For better or worse, computers have become a significant part of a Dartmouth student’s learning experience.

Students have complete autonomy over their study habits outside of class, but in the classroom, it’s a different story. Professors have surprisingly different policies in each course, ranging from encouragement to absolute abhorrence. After many years of sitting through boarding school and college courses, I noticed the professors’ attitudes towards computers in the classroom tend to be consistent with the nature of their subject, specifically whether the subject was quantitative or qualitative.

I noticed that usually humanities professors with less quantitative background are more reluctant to allow students to use computers to take notes, such as my government professors, and my creative writing professor, who explicitly banned computers in class. From my experience, professors who discouraged students to use computers in class generally provide the same reason, sometimes even word by word: “the computer screen gets in the way of your listening to your peers,” they said. I even had a media studies teacher in high school who brought research results to the first class to prove it.

In comparison, some quantitatively-inclined faculty, such as my statistics professor, did not even notice the "computers in the classroom" issue because he saw it as completely natural to take notes on a computer (the class did not require computer calculations, so it was not a stats-specific issue). In high school, I also had a fluid mechanics teacher who said we could take photos of the board in class with cell phones or computers, if we took notes with these devices.

There are also professors who fall in the middle category. In my personal experience, philosophy professors tend to be ambivalent about computers in the classroom. I had a philosophy professor who expressed his concerns over students’ browsing the Internet during class, but eventually said that he understood that most students study on the computer these days.

Teachers who hold more liberal views about education even encourage students to use computers, and digitalize readings across the board. While I haven’t experienced this level of digital involvement at Dartmouth, back at my boarding school, I had a philosophy teacher who also taught at Harvard Divinity School. She was very liberal about educational inclusivity and progressiveness. She explicitly said she welcomed our bringing iPads to class and wanted us to be able to access our readings this way. She believed it to be the future of education.

Now let’s take a look at the other side of the problem. Some opponents of computers in the classroom might raise the objection that students would browse online instead of taking notes. I sometimes find myself in that situation—the computer screen does offer an escape from the classroom. One can check email, go on Facebook, read the news, etc. As I look around the computer screens in the 1902 room, I quickly spot multiple screens displaying Facebook’s blue interface. Social media websites have become so common for our generation that they become the go-to sites when we are stressed or bored.

It seems there are two debates in this topic: first, whether there exists an interesting relationship between professors’ subjects and their tolerance for students to use computers in class. This question discusses a positive statement about how the world is, not how it should be. Secondly, there is another debate on whether computers should be used in class or serve as a significant part of the learning process. This is a normative debate on how the world should be. Until we can find satisfactory answers to both of these debates, we would have to struggle every day in the morning, whether we should bring that computer to class today.

My intention is not to generalize about teachers’ political attitudes, subject differences and technology tolerance. Such a relationship could only be revealed by careful research with a large enough sample. This article intends to explore the “curiosity phase” that leads up to designing such research, and I invite my readers to consider their own experiences, regardless if they are consistent with my own.

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