The Trouble with Technology
Rita Papazian
Norwalk-Citizen News

A Harvard Law School professor is proposing the ban of laptop use in classrooms. Bruce Hay says the use is a distraction and interferes with class discussion. The school has yet to vote on the ban.

            I say, “Say, hey, Professor Hay. I agree. Laptops are a distraction. While they can be a positive tool in the educational process, the negative effects outweigh the positive ones when it comes to a professor conducting a lesson in class.

            I can’t believe how naïve I’ve been to think that when my college students would come into class, readily sit down and open their laptops, that they were eager to begin taking notes on the day’s lesson. There I would be standing in front of the class, and they would be staring at their laptop screens and keystroking. “That is good. They are taking notes,” I thought. How naïve!

            They were checking and sending emails. They were playing games.

            I contribute my naiveté to my acceptance of this particular university’s rules. All students had to have a laptop in order to attend the school. How could I an adjunct instructor in English, even think that I could go against the rules and tell the students not to bring their laptops to class. I was still functioning with the naivete that students today were like students of years ago. The teacher talks and the student listens and take notes.

            It has taken me a while, a long time in fact, even years to realize, no they were not taking notes at all. I began to become frustrated by the lack of eye contact between students and myself as I taught the day’s lesson. I began to become very frustrated when I would ask a question and heads would bob up in my direction with blank stares. I was even more frustrated when I could not get simple answers to my questions. I hardly even received a verbal response – just a few, “I don’t know” or “Could you repeat the question?”

            Finally, in my frustration this past semester, I started walking around the class – up and down the rows, a practice I did many, many years ago teaching high school English on Long Island. Back then, while learning to be a teacher, you were taught to keep moving around the classroom and not remain planted with your feet in one spot on the floor. A teacher’s mobility around the room, kept the students alert. It was difficult for them to engage in non-class activity if the teacher were heading down the row.

            I started doing that at the university. It was not easy. Students are very nimble with their fingertips and with a laptop it takes just one keystroke to clear the screen. The result would be my looking at a variety of screensavers.

            I was surprised to read about a proposal to ban laptops from a Harvard Law professor. After all, he of all people would embrace technology, but then again, isn’t the law where discourse is so valued? How can you engage in reason and discussion if you’re emailing friends or playing solitaire, instead of thinking bout the class lesson?

            In teaching my writing class, I would justify using a laptop for I know from personal experience that a computer can facilitate writing. But, I also noticed that students today focus on speed. Get it done as fast as possible. Thought? Ideas? Forget about it. Generally speaking, I noticed they wrote less when they used a computer than when they wrote long hand. Writing long hand takes time and with time can come thoughts and with thoughts can come ideas, etc.

            Reading about Harvard professor Hay’s anti-laptop stance brought to mind a difference I noticed between my classes at the private university and at the community college where I was also teaching. This community college does not require students to own laptops especially since many of these students are working full-time jobs to support themselves and to pay for their college classes. I noticed when they came into class they engaged in conversation with one another. They were also appeared responsive to the lessons and were quite open and opinionated during class discussions.

            I know there are many, many variables that come into play when comparing a student body and class environment: age, socio-economics, career objectives, background, experience, class time, etc. My university class this past semester was in the morning and my community college classes were in the afternoon. However, Hays got me thinking. There definitively was a pattern to how students came into class, settled themselves down and prepared themselves for my beginning the class.

            The university class was very quiet, expressionless and as I mentioned, students were focusing on opening their laptops and beginning whatever they wanted to do on their laptop. The community college classes were more vocal. They chatted with one another. They discussed the class work and asked me questions before I began the class. One class was chatty throughout the semester. I attribute that to the personalities, diversities and mix of students. Conversations were very engaging, especially when we talked about illegal immigration, injustice and Internet use.

            As a writer, I am thrilled with the technology of the Internet. I love writing on the computer. No longer can I write by hand. But, as a college instructor who values ideas, discussions and communication, verbally and on paper, I, too, would welcome a ban on laptops. We need to have opportunities to converse with each other, in person, eye-to-eye so that we can hear each other’s voices, inflections, feelings, and tones.

            In other words, we need to pay attention to each other so that we can learn, think and grow.

© Copyright 2006 Rita Papazian All rights reserved.